“Inchoate rage” is what compelled writer, director, producer Edward Zwick to co-produce and direct “Trial by Fire,” a feature film about the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham in Texas in 2004.
What sparked his rage was a 16,000-word New Yorker article “Trial by Fire,” in which David Grann painstakingly and movingly recounted Willingham’s case. It started with the fire that consumed Willingham’s ramshackle house within minutes, killing his three little girls. The authorities’ presumption of guilt tainted the investigation afterward, with so-called fire investigators concluding that Willingham had set the fire deliberately, and continued through his sham trial, conviction, and execution. The story is an all-too-familiar one in death penalty cases: an uneducated, unemployed man with a record of petty crimes, unable to afford an experienced, skilled lawyer to mount a credible defense against accusations of a horrific act, is convicted and sentenced to die for a crime he didn’t commit.
The story of Todd Willingham “presents a strong moral argument on how this society functions,” Zwick says. “There is such unequal treatment based on race and class, it’s the depredation of a broken system.”
But it’s also a story about a friendship that developed between Willingham, who was abandoned by his wife (although she never believed he had killed their children), and Elizabeth Gilbert, a teacher and writer, who began writing to Willingham as part of a prison pen-pal program, and after visiting him a few times, grew to believe in his innocence, and devoted her energies to trying to prove it. Portrayed in the film by Laura Dern, the relationship between the two is a bright spot in a very grim story.
“But for her willingness to step forward, this man would have been utterly abandoned,” Zwick says of the unlikely bond between the two. He was intrigued that Gilbert, a middle-class, educated, divorced mother of two, was herself “flawed in some way,” creating an indefinable connection that, Zwick believes, “heightened the journey that the two were on.”
Zwick doesn’t sanctify Willingham in “Trial by Fire.” As portrayed by Jack O’Connell, Willingham was an unemployed car mechanic, with a record for minor offenses, who was insensitive, loud, profane, and a drinker. Zwick said he was determined to be honest in the depiction because “It didn’t matter that he’d been a bad husband or did drugs. He may have been a disreputable person, but that didn’t mean he deserved what happened to him.”
He was also a 23-year-old man who, by all accounts, loved his three little girls, two-year-old Amber, and one-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron. And while he had reportedly hit his wife on several occasions, no one, including a former judge who had sentenced him for stealing, ever believed he had been anything but a good father to his daughters.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. The case against Willingham was based on a seriously flawed arson investigation, testimony from a jailhouse snitch, damning testimony from neighbors who changed their accounts from their initial interviews with police that were sympathetic to Willingham, and an ineffective defense. His lawyer called only one witness, the Willinghams’ babysitter, who testified she didn’t believe he had killed the children. The trial lasted for two days; the jury deliberated one hour.
Willingham was 36 years old when he was executed in 2004. Within a couple of years after his death, reputable fire investigators were asked by different organizations to look at the arson evidence that had convicted him, including four who had been commissioned by the Innocence Project. “The panel concluded that ‘each and every one’ of the indicators of arson had been ‘scientifically proven to be invalid,’ ” Grann writes.
“Trial by Fire” will be released next Friday, May 17. For Zwick, it will be the culmination of an effort that began nine years ago, when he picked up the New Yorker.
“I have been politically active and have made films about progressive issues before but like a lot of people who have the right-minded view, I haven’t done anything related to this particular issue,” he says. “The one thing I could do was apply what abilities I have to tell this particular story. I was doing the one thing that takes you out of yourself and satisfies the feeling of impotent rage. I didn’t think it would take nine years, but the people financing movies these days seem to be a lot more interested in superheroes and sequels than they are in issues that are complex, or upsetting.”