Warning: This post contains spoilers for the movie Trial By Fire.
Trial By Fire, out May 17, is the opposite of a feel-good movie. There are no Hollywood endings to be found in this story of a grieving man, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell), sentenced to the death penalty for a crime he didn't commit. Instead, there's a series of devastations. After all, this is a true story. And while all true stories have endings, they are rarely what you want them to be.
Instead of being an escapist porthole for audiences to slip into for a few hours, screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher sees Trial By Fire as having another purpose. "Movies are empathy machines," Fletcher told Refinery29. "We're better off when you function as such you see a movie like this — hopefully it’ll make a big difference." Essentially, Fletcher hopes it changes you.
As the start of Trial By Fire shows, Cameron Todd Willingham was no storybook protagonist. The 23-year-old native of Corsicana, TX was prone to cheating and drinking too much. He and his wife, Stacy Kuykendall (Emily Meade), had a toxic and tumultuous relationship. Their fights filled up the walls of their tiny home. While Stacy worked, Willingham stayed home with their three daughters, 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Karmen and Kameron.
The movie wants you to make a judgment call about Willingham — the same judgment call that biased police investigators, prosecutors, and a jury made later on, after he'd suffered an unthinkable tragedy.
"The story-tellers open you up to the possibility that each of us has our own heartbreak and our own demons and deserves fair consideration."
"We often make a judgment when we see someone on the 6 o'clock news. To have the audience go on that journey of reconsidering this person — hopefully it'll make us less likely to make snap judgments," Fletcher said.
On December 23, 1991, the Wilingham's home burst into flames while Stacy was out shopping for Christmas presents at the Salvation Army. Wilingham was able to escape the house. But he couldn't save his three daughters, all of whom perished.
The miscarriage of justice that followed was laid out in David Grann's now-famous New Yorker article upon which the movie is based. Investigators visited the ruins of Wilingham's house and built a case that positioned Wilingham as a cold-blooded arsonist looking to escape his domestic life. Granted, they weren't able to determine a motive — but once the notion of Wilingham as prime suspect was formed, it stuck. John Jackson, the assistant district attorney assigned to Wilingham's case, brought this portrait to the public, calling Wilingham an "utterly sociopathic individual" in the Dallas Morning News.
However, that couldn't have been farther from the truth of who Wilingham actually was — especially when it came to his kids. "He was accused of this horrible crime when the truth of the matter was, he was a man loved his children so greatly, in spite of any other aspects of his personality that people might judge," Fletcher said. Stacy and the family babysitter agreed: Wilingham would never kill the girls.
Wilingham was arrested in January 1991 and charged with triple homicide. He refused to admit guilt and accept a plea of life-without-parole. The trial hinged on two pieces of evidence that have since been proved false. The state-appointed defense attorneys found an arson expert who agreed with, not contradicted, the prosectors' assessment. Further, Johnny Webb, a jailhouse informant, said that Wilingham confessed starting the fire to him – in 2014, Webb recanted that testimony, saying that Jackson offered him leniency on his own robbery charges.
Two days after the trial, Wilingham was sentenced to death. He was shipped to death row, where he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement. He was forgotten. Until 1999, that is, when he was contacted by Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a Houston-based playwright who occasionally wrote letters to inmates on death row. After reviewing his case and finding the glaring contradictions, Gilbert became convinced Wilingham was innocent.
Gilbert began the fight no one had picked up, and introduced the possibility of hope back into Wilingham's life. Gilbert enlisted the help of Gerald Hurst, a renowned arson expert, to prove Wilingham's innocence. Hurst concluded that there was no foul play involved in the fire. In reality, the fire was caused by a space heater.
“It would be easier, perhaps, for people to hear of this horrific tragedy and blame it on an individual and know that individual is locked up or killed, and so the tragedy that you can’t grasp is now dealt with and it’ll never happen again," Dern told Refinery29. "Instead of actually, it was a space heater, and it can happen to you to at any moment."
Though state officials received Hurst's arson report, the death sentence stayed. On February 17, 2004, Wilingham was executed by way of lethal injection. His exact final words are repeated in the movie: "The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do."
Gilbert fought for Wilingham until she literally could not anymore. Shortly before Wilingham's execution, Gilbert was in a car accident and paralyzed from the waist down. According to Grann, she's now able to walk with the aid of a walker. Gilbert, who was closely involved with the making of the movie, continued her advocacy.
"She reopened Todd’s case and has continued to fight, alongside with the Innocence Project, to exonerate him posthumously. Only a few months later, another man was exonerated because of the fire science she established," Dern said.
Trial By Fire sounds an alarming bell: How many other innocent people have been executed? Since 1973, 165 people have been exonerated from death row. There's no way of knowing how many of the 1,470 people executed since 1976 were also innocent. Since 1972, Texas has carried out the most executions in the United States.
Dern sees an unlikely overlap between this exposé of false convictions and the death penalty and her popular HBO show Big Little Lies, which follows a group of privileged Monterey moms.
“All art models how we profile. How we judge a book by its cover. How we’ve decided, before we begun, what kind of person it is. In Big Little Lies you decided, 'Oh, rich white girl problems — they have an easy life. And in the case of Trial By Fire, the movie starts with a complicated guy who’s not easy to have any compassion for," Dern said. "The story-tellers open you up to the possibility that each of us has our own heartbreak and our own demons and deserves fair consideration."