Two weeks before the gubernatorial election, the season premiere of PBS's Frontline features a timely topic: the Cameron Todd Willingham case — and despite initial hesitation, all public broadcasting stations in Texas will air it.
When Texas PBS stations originally learned the episode of the nationally syndicated show would run so close to Election Day, some expressed concern over how the public might perceive the decision to show the hourlong documentary on the highly controversial case, which raises the question of whether Texas executed an innocent man, according to Bill Moll, the general manager of San Antonio's KLRN. But after reviewing and discussing its content with Frontline producers, Moll said, "We felt that there was no motive that has anything to do with the election; it just kind of hits where it hits."
The Tribune obtained an early copy of the episode. Most of the documentary focuses on interviews with the Corsicana man's relatives and neighbors, who describe the events leading up to the fire that killed his three daughters, and fire experts who take apart the arson evidence the state used to convict him of arson in 1992. Willingham doesn't come out looking saintly: One neighbor describes overhearing the then-23-year-old Willingham's frequent beatings of his wife and calls him a "very mean man." The last quarter of the episode addresses the current commotion over whether Gov. Rick Perry erred in allowing the execution to proceed in 2004 and intentionally meddled with the makeup of the Texas Forensic Science Commission when it was set to take on the case late last year. Perry declined multiple interview requests from PBS producers, a Frontline spokesperson says.
Bill Young, the vice president of programming at KERA — which serves North Texas, including Dallas and Fort Worth area — said the station never questioned whether to run the episode, only the scheduling. "There was just an interest of us wanting to talk to Frontline to figure out the timing — why now?" he says. But after viewing it, it became clear that "there is so much more to it than being just two weeks before the election."
"We're a little bit more sensitive here in the state, because we have the election in two weeks, than somebody in Kansas City," he said, adding, "Any other time on earth, nobody would have even thought twice about it."
View excerpts from the episode, which will air tonight at 8 p.m. Central Standard Time, here.
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.