Trial by Fire not only makes the argument that Cameron Todd Willingham was innocent but points to evidence that Texas killed an innocent man.
After Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) has been sitting on death row for a dozen years, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) comes into his life. She may have her own family issues but she’s touched by his letters and decides to help him out. If not for Elizabeth, not only would new evidence be completely missed but witnesses might not have had a change of heart. What got Cameron into this ordeal was being arrested for the murder of his three daughters. He professes his innocence but it is to no avail. The people investigating have already made up their mind. Cameron’s attorney Horton (Darren Petiie) could make the best argument in the world but it really would not make a dent in the case.
To put it simply, Cameron is going to be found guilty before he even goes to trial. It really is not fair. Knowing what we know later on, it’s all the more upsetting. It really leads to more anger but I digress.
Enter Elizabeth and there’s new hope for Cameron. The mother of two from Houston ends up meeting him after they become pen pals so to speak. If this is what helps to give you meaning in life, by all means go for it! Hope is the only thing that Cameron has. With Elizabeth entering his life, she offers some newfound hope.
It’s just a matter of finding the right people willing to listen. Most of the people who need to be listening are ignoring all the signs. Unfair as it may be. Could Cameron be alive today? Possibly. It really depends on people listening and doing their job. This is the problem at hand. The right people are not listening. I have every reason to believe that he is innocent because of the science. The film is ultimately an argument against the death penalty. I can offer more feelings when it comes to capital punishment but a film review is not the place.
Don’t go into this film thinking you’re going to get a John Grisham legal thriller. It’s not even the melodramatic film that you can find on television. It’s something else entirely. Maybe it’s the score factoring in during the emotional moments but this film just had me raging in anger. It’s a testament to the Texas justice system or lack thereof. We should not be sending innocent people to their death when there’s new evidence available. If the buck stops at the top, former Texas governor Rick Perry was in the position to stop the execution. Instead, he along with all the other people that could have stopped an innocent man from dying…allowed him to die. His blood is on their hands as such.
The film goes through the scientific evidence that disproves the original arson investigation. While this is good and all, it’s up to the State of Texas to listen to the new evidence. Unfortunately, Texas being Texas means that it’s automatically denied. Where I really got angry was when Willingham’s former cellmate Johnny Webb (Blake Scott Lewis) admitted to being forced to testify against him. He goes as far as to write a note to recant his testimony. This was to no avail because the prosecuting attorney just hides it away in his desk. Talk about showing an utter lack of professional responsibility and ethics to the office you hold. Seriously. That attorney ought to be disbarred for his actions. It’s horribly upsetting.
Trial by Fire offers an added touch during the film’s postscript. This comes in the form of highlights from the GOP presidential debate when former Texas governor Rick Perry defended capital punishment in Texas. If you’re not angry after viewing Trial by Fire, you should be.
DIRECTOR: Edward Zwick
SCREENWRITER: Geoffrey Fletcher
CAST: Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade