Will New Film on Gov. Rick Perry's Execution Scandal Kill His White House Chances?

A searing new documentary makes a compelling case that a suspect for an arson incident was wrongly convicted and that Gov. Perry brushed aside strong evidence for his innocence.
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Gov. Rick Perry, a likely GOP presidential candidate, faces a new burden: a searing documentary film, Incendiary, that looks at the railroading of a suspect for an arson incident that killed his children. The executed convict was Cameron Todd Willingham, but the new film and extensive print journalism makes a compelling case that he was wrongly convicted and that Gov. Perry brushed aside strong evidence for his innocence.

The Week magazine has a round-up story on the impact of the execution headlined: "Rick Perry's death penalty 'disgrace': A 2012 dealbreaker?As a presidential run looks likely for the Texas governor, questions resurface about his role in the execution of a man who, according to forensics experts, was innocent."

Another question some political critics are asking: If this is how Rick Perry handles a seemingly reasonable request to postpone an execution for 30 days, how would he handle a decision on whether to deploy nuclear weapons during a threat of war? How, for example, would Rick Perry have handled the Cuban missile crisis? Would Perry have shown the same tough-minded coolness as JFK in getting the crisis resolved but who also didn't buckle to demands by trigger-happy generals to launch a nuclear attack?

His handling of this prisoner's appeal for a reprieve isn't especially comforting for those concerned about whether Rick Perry has the temperament and wisdom to be President. As the Chicago Tribune summed up: "Man executed on disproved forensics... Fire that killed his 3 children could have been accidental."

Some highlights of its investigation, echoed by other accounts:

While Texas authorities dismissed his protests, a Tribune investigation of his case shows that Willingham was prosecuted and convicted based primarily on arson theories that have since been repudiated by scientific advances. According to four fire experts consulted by the Tribune, the original investigation was flawed and it is even possible the fire was accidental.

Before Willingham died by lethal injection on Feb. 17, Texas judges and Gov. Rick Perry turned aside a report from a prominent fire scientist questioning the conviction.

This miscarriage of justice, though, probably sells well with Perry's hard-core ideological base. Nonetheless, as New York Times columnist Ta-Nehishi Coates points out:

The fire investigators who fingered Willingham relied on the kind of sorcery that fire scientists have tried for the past 20 years to chase from the field. The informant, for his part, claimed that Willingham had inexplicably blurted out a confession, then recanted his tale. Then, in the words of New Yorker reporter David Grann, he "recanted his recantation." When Grann tracked him down in 2009, he told him that "it's very possible I misunderstood" what Willingham said, pausing to add "the statute of limitations has run out on perjury, hasn't it?"

Perry was unswayed by pleas from Willingham's lawyers and rejected their request for a 30-day reprieve. This registers as a rather mild atrocity in Texas, a state that does not so much tinker with the machinery of death as it gleefully fumbles at the controls.

Now the film about his prosecution and conviction -- and all the mishandling of the allegations against him -- gets an East Coast premiere at the AFI Silverdocs festival in Silver Spring this week.

Here's a trailer from the movie -- but who will pay attention to what it says about Gov. Rick Perry and the American Way of Justice?

UPDATE II: The East Coast premiere of the film on Saturday unveiled a gripping, visually stunning indictment of a miscarriage of justice as great as that chronicled in Erol Morris's groundbreaking Thin Blue Line over two decades ago. In this case, the film weaves together everything from compelling interviews with scientists challenging the discredited arson case built on junk science to footage of the fire itself to caught-on-tape illustrations of Gov. Perry's hand-picked cronies and allies seeking to deep-six an independent investigation of this grotesque abuse of the justice system. Why? In order to protect Perry's political career amid his primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson for the governorship -- and now, his presidential ambitions.

Near the end, the film provides damning TV footage of Gov. Rick Perry seeking to smooth-talk his way out of what should be a major scandal -- but probably won't be in the Republican primary. All Perry had been asked to do was to give this dubious case a 30-day reprieve to consider the overwhelming scientific consensus that no arson had even taken place at all. But, as filmmaker Steve Mims pointed out in the Q-and-A following the film, "For Rick Perry, there's no political upside to looking soft on crime."

A thoughtful review in Popmatters puts the film in a broader political and scientific context:

And [scientist Gerald Hurst's] point is key in the film, which looks into the Willingham case not just to show--again--the scientific consensus that no crime was committed, that Willingham's three daughters died in an accidental fire but also to point out the political uses of the case, by Perry and his cohorts, as well as by anti-death penalty activists.

Screening on 24 and 25 June at Silverdocs, Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr.'s elegant, insistent documentary takes Barry Scheck's point of departure on the Willingham case as its own, namely, that "The science used in that case was invalid and unscientific." It's a point of departure taken by a number of other accounts as well, including David Grann's 2009 New Yorker essay, as well as 2010's Frontline: Death By Fire.

Incendiary keeps the evolving science of fire investigation in focus. To do so, it presents a mix of images indicating how the science is suppressed: old footage, court documents, and newspaper headlines indicate the hysteria that swirled around Willingham, under superimposed flames, cut alongside shots of book-lined office and the State Capitol in Austin under scaffolding...Incendiary contends that even if it's too late to save Todd Willingham, it's also long past time for the officials who ignored this obligation, Rick Perry included, to own up.

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