Although the story received national attention, there’s still considerable value in “Death by Fire,” an Oct. 19 “Frontline” documentary about how the state of Texas likely executed an innocent man.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry refused to delay the execution, then fired the head of a commission that was looking into the case.
In methodical fashion, “Frontline” examines how questionable arson analysis and suspicious jailhouse confessions led to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, an extremely unsympathetic defendant — he had physically abused his wife — who based on a serious look at the evidence did not set the fire that killed his three young children.
Not that any of the scientific data will convince officials or residents in the small Texas town of Corsicana, where the colorful locals resemble a touring company for “Bad Day at Black Rock.”
“Death by Fire” comes from the Kirk Documentary Group (Jessie Deeter is the producer-director, Mike Wiser and Michael Kirk the producer-writers), and it quietly makes a powerful case about the one irrefutable aspect of the death penalty — namely, if you get it wrong, there’s no correcting the error.
“The state of Texas executed a man for a crime that they couldn’t prove was really a crime,” fire scientist John Lentini says in the documentary.
Frankly, that’s as scary as anything you’re apt to see on television in the build-up to Halloween.