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Frontline begins new season by re-lighting Texas arson execution in Death By Fire

Convicted arsonist/baby killer Cameron Todd Willingham and the house where his three young children burned to death. But did he really do it? Frontline re-investigates in its season premiere.

The season premiere of PBS' long-running, much-honored Frontline documentary series has a strong Texas angle on a night when its timing is unfortunate.

Airing Tuesday, Oct. 19th at 9 p.m. (central) on KERA/Channel 13 in D-FW, it will be directly opposite a much bigger ongoing state story -- Game 4 of the ALCS between the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees.

Activating your recording device is recommended if you're not yet familiar with this almost two-decades old case. Whether Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana in fact set the Dec. 23, 1991 home fire that killed his three young daughters has been investigated and re-investigated before and after his Feb. 17, 2004 execution.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials remain adamantly convinced that he did the deed. So does Willingham's defense attorney.

"He was an individual with essentially no redeeming values," says former prosecutor John Jackson. "This was his crowning achievement as a psycopath -- the murder of his three children."

But latter day experts with more tools at their disposal say there's no evidence at all to support the arson conviction.

"Fundamentally, this was a classic accidental fire," says forensic scientist Gerald Hurst. A 2009 report commissioned by the Texas Forensic Science Commission later backed him up, prompting Gov. Rick Perry to replace the commission's chairman.

Perry, who also refused to authorize a stay of execution back in 2004, typically bungles his explanation of his actions.

"He (Willingham) spews an obscenity-laced 'triad' (sic) against his wife" just hours before being executed, Perry says in previously televised remarks. "That's the person that we're talking about here . . . This was a bad man."

Frontline adopts a 48 Hours Mystery/Dateline motif in re-digging into the case. Except that this is PBS, so the presentation is much more meticulous and bereft of titillating mood music or over-played voice inflections. The narration instead is relentlessly sober and matter-of-fact, as it always is when PBS staple Will Lyman is doing the talking.

"Todd would have to change his ways," he says at one point. "He had a reputation as a ladies' man." Dateline's Keith Morrison, deliciously parodied by Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader, would add mustard, relish and tabasco to that passage. But Lyman offers no condiments, serving a steady diet of plain hamburgers well done. In this case, there's something to be said for that.

Death By Fire has a wide range of fresh interviews, not that most of these people haven't talked before about a man who lately has become something of a cause celebre for death penalty opponents. But any martyring of Cameron Todd Willingham is unsettling at best.

By virtually all accounts, he was a wife-beating, heavy-drinking shirker of family responsibilities. Some think that may have made him an easier target for investigators, prosecutors and the jury that eventually sent him to Huntsville's death row. But as the film notes, it's still no reason to execute an innocent man.

This is a solid, involving hour of television, even if it's also basically a regurgitation. Little if any new ground is broken here. And in the end, if you want my opinion, I just couldn't help thinking that this guy is about as innocent as O.J.

Knuckle-draggers who incessantly beat their wives in effect are playing with fire. So it's hard to argue that the world is a lesser place without the likes of Cameron Todd Willingham. Did he get what he deserved? Legally, that's very questionable. Viscerally -- well, that's another matter entirely.


Addendum: Here's video of a recent update on the Willingham case, with WFAA8's Jason Whitely doing the off-camera reporting/narration for the Dallas-based ABC station while Fox4's Richard Ray, CBS11's Bud Gillett and an NBC5 microphone can be seen as part of his story.