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“Fire doesn’t destroy evidence,” one of the arson experts testifies in court. “Fire creates evidence.” That it does. But what if the evidence it creates is misinterpreted by the people who are entrusted to understand it? What if the experts are clouded by confirmation biases, hampered by outdated investigative methods, and complicit in a judicial system that disproportionally targets the poor? And what if — as a direct result of those other what ifs — an innocent man was executed for murdering his own children? In Texas, which executes more than five times as many people as any other state, those aren’t exactly hypothetical questions.
A clumsy prison drama that’s baked into a compelling argument against the death penalty, Ed Zwick’s “Trial by Fire” dramatizes the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was wrongly convicted of burning his house down with his three young daughters inside on December 23, 1991. It was just two days before Christmas, a quirk of the schedule that made the accusations seem all the more sinister — a throwaway detail made it that much easier for the prosecution to paint Willingham as an evil soul whose pentagram tattoo indicated an allegiance to the devil.
Man - Face - Police - File - Willingham
Not that it is, was, or ever has been hard to convict a man like that. From his face to his police file, the twenty-something Willingham looked like a composite sketch of every white guy on Death Row. He had a mullet, but not a job (or, it would seem, a high school diploma). He had as many DUIs as he did children. He hit his wife, and she hit him back. Looking at Willingham from the jury box, you’d sooner expect to see the guy on an episode of “Cops” than at the center of a movie by the director of...
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Millions in tribute, but not a penny left for charity.