When MSNBC’s Brian Williams asked Rick Perry during a recent GOP debate if he ever worried that his state had executed an innocent man on Perry’s watch, the three-term Texas governor didn’t hesitate: “No sir, I’ve never struggled with that at all.” Maybe he should have: As Steve Mims and Joe Bailey detail in their new documentary, Incendiary, the state’s 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder of his two children was based in large part on arson science that had been thoroughly rejected by the scientific community—something that Perry had been informed of before the “ultimate justice” was served.
Inspired by David Grann’s masterful 2009 New Yorker story about the case, the Austin filmmakers set out to chronicle the flawed forensics behind the execution. They soon found themselves in the middle of a pitched political battle involving Perry’s apparent maneuvering to put a thumb on the scales with the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Mims and Bailey spoke recently with Mother Jones about the Willingham case, arson science, and how they navigated the politics of capital punishment.
"I expect the executions to be a huge boost to Perry’s campaign," says Onion News Network anchor Brooke Alvarez. "As we saw at the debate, this is what his supporters want. [Perry] is proving he’s not just going to talk the talk, he’s willing to actually take human lives."