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Criminal Justice

How Ed Zwick Hopes to Reignite the Death-Penalty Debate With Trial by Fire

The veteran filmmaker digs into the controversial true-life case of a Corsicana man who was executed in 2004 after a possibly erroneous murder conviction.
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Even scoundrels deserve their fair shake in court, they argue.

It’s been 27 years since Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of triple homicide after his Corsicana home burned down with his three young daughters inside. But Edward Zwick contends that his tragic story maintains a vital relevance today.

That’s why the director made Trial by Fire, which chronicles the build-up to Willingham’s 2004 execution in the face of compelling evidence that could have exonerated him. It allowed Zwick to advocate for the abolishment of the death penalty by using a true-life case of injustice as an example.

“The opportunity to rush to judgment interested me and enraged me,” Zwick said during a recent stop in Dallas. “Criminal justice reform will never really be able to happen until the death penalty is dealt with, because that’s such an absurdity at the top of the pyramid.”

The film starts with the December 1991 fire, after which quick trial leads to a death sentence for Willingham (Jack O’Connell). However, as an unfit parent with a violent temper and an extensive criminal record, was he convicted based solely on his reputation rather than on the facts of the case? Todd steadfastly maintains his innocence without presenting any evidence to the contrary.

That insistence intrigues Houston mother Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), Todd’s prison pen pal with a troubled personal life of her own. Elizabeth starts digging into the case and finds that pertinent evidence supporting Todd’s claims either has been suppressed or ignored, and becomes a relentless crusader while suggesting a cover-up that goes all the way to Gov. Rick Perry’s office.

“He was disreputable in some ways. He’d been in trouble with the police. He was a metalhead. He did drugs. He had an abusive relationship with his wife — all those things for which we tend to utterly objectify someone else and then want to rid ourselves of them,” Zwick said. “The fact that he was unsympathetic made it a more provocative and more challenging story for the audience. I want the audience to have that recognition.”

Zwick (Courage Under Fire) helped develop the screenplay after reading David Grann’s 2009 article in the New Yorker about Willingham’s perceived innocence and the state’s questionable handling of his case.

“It was not just a remarkable piece of journalism. It was particularly compelling for the creativity of its narrative, starting with the belief on the reader’s part that he was guilty,” Zwick said. “We all might have believed him guilty. Certainly the people in Corsicana believed him guilty. That suggested a shape for the story.”

Gilbert gave the filmmakers access to Willingham’s prison letters, while Zwick also combed the transcript of his brief trial, which lasted less than two days.

“These two people created something meaningful,” Zwick said. “We were really able to dig into the more nuanced aspects of their relationship. What’s very much at the heart of this movie is how a single act of kindness can yield so much for two people.”

British actor O’Connell (Unbroken) went through extensive dialect training prior to the film, which was shot in Georgia instead of Texas for tax-incentive reasons.

Zwick, 66, compares Willingham’s fate to the biblical character of Job, and cautions that cases like his are more common than many think. He hopes the film not only will trigger discussion about capital punishment but also other legal issues, such as the evolution of fire science as a legitimate judicial tool.

“A true story allows me to go deeper into some of the characterizations because the narrative shape is already present and creates an edifice on which the relationships can exist,” he said. “I feel obliged to serve the real facts of a case. Within those facts, I’m willing to take dramatic license to make assumptions about character and about emotional choices. When I find one, it galvanizes me.”

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