'Big Little Lies' Star Laura Dern Challenges Texas to Abolish the Death Penalty After 'Trial by Fire'

Most true crime fans are familiar with Making a Murderer, which tells the story of a Wisconsin man who has been imprisoned for murder, but if Steven Avery were in a state that had the death penalty, would he still be alive to plead his innocence?

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the triple homicide by arson of his three young children in Corsicana, Texas, on December 23, 1991. He died pleading his innocence, with his friend, Elizabeth Gilbert, endlessly working to get him exonerated. New science proved he couldn't have ignited the fire that killed his children, yet he went suffered the ultimate consequence. Now, in 2019, a two-time Oscar award-nominated actor, Big Little Lies star Laura Dern, is helping bring Willingham's story to the masses by portraying Gilbert in Trial by Fire, which debuted in theaters May 17.

The film ends with a real-life clip that shows former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was in office when Willingham was executed, being asked about the death penalty. Perry claimed he didn't lose a wink of sleep over killing a potentially innocent man.

"I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that's required," then-Governor Perry, who now serves as secretary of energy in the Trump administration, said in 2011.

‘Big Little Lies’ Star Laura Dern Challenges Texas to Abolish the Death Penalty
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in 2004 for the triple homicide by arson of his three young children in Corsicana, Texas, on December 23, 1991. He died pleading his innocence, with his friend, Elizabeth Gilbert, endlessly working to get him exonerated. New science proved he couldn’t have ignited the fire that killed his children, yet he went suffered the ultimate consequence. Roadside Attractions

Perry, seemingly talking about Willingham, added: "But in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."

Dern, however, has a challenge for the state of Texas and Perry. "If that is your belief system, then how great is it that we ended with your quote?" she asks. "It's not about shaming you. If you believe that, if your moral compass is 'thou shall not kill' and we will never kill an innocent person, then we have to immediately abolish the death penalty."

The death penalty is legal in 30 states. Unlike what Perry argued during his 2011 statement—not every person placed behind bars is guilty. Since 1989, The Innocence Project exonerated 362 people who were convicted of serious crimes in by DNA testing. Twenty of those prisoners were sentenced to death.

"So what are we doing?" Dern asked in her challenge. "We're killing innocent people. We know that now. It's so tragic."

When taking on the role of playing Gilbert, one of the people who fought to have Willingham released, Dern said she felt a responsibility to get it "right."

"There's no 'right' in acting, but there's true for the person's experience and the family's that were impacted by the story you're telling," Dern said. "There is somebody whose behavior was horrific. You don't hope to teach when you're making a movie, but you certainly hope to encourage or insight conversation. If the conversation makes people that much more—or wake up to an issue—then that's really exciting. All you can do as an actor is make it as authentic as possible so that it can impact people to have the experience that the people who are dealing with this went through."

Trial by Fire is currently in theaters.

'Big Little Lies' Star Laura Dern Challenges Texas to Abolish the Death Penalty After 'Trial by Fire' | Culture
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