• U.S.

Recrossing The Thin Blue Line

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Randall Adams did not complain when Continental Flight 140 from Houston to Columbus took off 20 minutes behind schedule last Thursday. He was already twelve years late leaving Dallas County, Texas, which he says had become his “hell on earth.” In 1976, several weeks after Adams found a job repairing pallets, he was arrested for the slaying of a Dallas policeman. At one point, with only three days to spare, he was saved from execution by a U.S. Supreme Court stay while the Justices considered a legal technicality.

Adams had been in jail for eight years when Errol Morris, an avant-garde film-maker from New York City, came to Texas to make a documentary about Dr. James Grigson, known as Dr. Death to defense lawyers for his consistent findings that convicted murderers were so unrepentant that they deserved execution. In its zeal to help Morris, the Dallas district attorney’s office turned over the dusty records from Adams’ trial. What Morris found in the boxes was more intriguing than Dr. Death: evidence of a prosecution willing to bend, if not break, the guarantees of a fair trial in its efforts to obtain a conviction. Morris abandoned his original project in order to tell Adams’ story in The Thin Blue Line, which won two major film awards and helped Adams finally win his freedom.

The nightmare began Thanksgiving weekend in 1976, when Adams was picked up by David Harris, 16, after running out of gas. The two went to a drive-in movie. Adams claims Harris dropped him off at his motel room a little before 10 p.m., but Harris said the two tooled around Dallas with Adams driving until well after midnight. When they were stopped by a policeman, Harris claimed, he hunched down in the passenger seat as Adams pulled out a .22-cal. pistol and shot officer Robert Wood dead.

But everything else pointed to Harris. Both the car and the pistol had been stolen by Harris. The teenager had been in trouble before. Harris even boasted to some friends that he had killed Wood. Still, the prosecution bought Harris’ story. Adams’ attorney, Randy Schaffer, contends that Harris supplied two things the prosecutors wanted: an eyewitness (Harris) and someone to execute (Adams). Harris was too young for the death penalty.

Convicted and condemned, Adams was like the man in the dream whose lips form words but who cannot be heard. He got a major break when Schaffer, a scrappy young Houston lawyer, took his case in 1982 for expenses only. Then Morris began filming in 1985. The investigating officers sat before him in their best Sunday suits, preening for the camera, as did two prosecution witnesses whose stories fell apart. Most chilling of all, Harris all but confessed, saying to Morris, “I’m the one who knows” Adams is innocent.

Even so, prosecutors were determined to keep Adams in jail, discounting Harris’ statements as the rantings of a condemned man. (Harris is on death row for a 1985 murder.) But on March 1, an appellate court unanimously threw out Adams’ conviction, finding that the state was guilty of suppressing evidence favorable to Adams, deceiving the trial court and knowingly using perjured testimony.

If, in one sense, Adams was saved by the media, he is now at risk of becoming their prisoner. Released on $50,000 bond three weeks after the appellate-court ruling, Adams was soon out of his orange prison uniform and into a borrowed shirt and tie, then whisked off to a Houston studio to appear on Nightline, the first of a slam-bang round of television appearances. Awkward at first, Adams quickly seemed as comfortable as Tom Hanks discussing his latest movie on Johnny Carson’s couch. For the moment, prying reporters have become as ever present as guards. On the plane to Ohio, flight attendants passed food trays bucket-brigade style over the backs of cameramen crouched in the aisles.

Waiting in the Columbus airport were about 100 people, including Adams’ mother Mildred, a retired supervisor at a home for retarded children, and friends from her Baptist church with yellow ribbons around their necks. Adams plowed through the crowd to hug his mother and then the teary-eyed Morris. At the press conference, Adams’ sister whispered in his ear that Texas had decided not to retry him. He squeezed his mother’s hand so tightly his knuckles turned white.

The next day Adams’ sister threw a party. The family brought deviled eggs and a cake; someone had left seven bags of groceries on the doorstep during the night. Recalling his first postprison meal of chicken chalupas, Adams said, “It felt strange to have the man across from me eating something different than I.”

Adams, now 40, seems to have made his peace with his jailers, knowing that to pursue revenge could poison his future happiness. He has learned, he says, to “think the worst and hope for the least.” Doug Mulder, the former Dallas prosecutor who wronged him, is shielded by law from suits by convicts. But cases like Adams’ leave a residue of uneasiness: if the Supreme Court had not reversed the death sentence, and if a filmmaker had not stumbled onto suppressed evidence in locked and forgotten files, Adams would have been dead long ago.

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