"It's an Everyman's story. It's the story of someone slipping through the cracks -- if you like, a nonfiction Twilight Zone episode." That was filmmaker Errol Morris talking, in 1988, about his documentary The Thin Blue Line -- otherwise known as the film that proved Randall Dale Adams did not kill Dallas Police officer Robert Wood in 1976, despite his having been convicted of the crime and sentenced to die in '77.
Errol Morris did not come to Dallas in 1985 to spring Adams; he didn't even know who he was. The filmmaker had arrived instead to profile Dr. James Grigson, the local psychiatrist known as "Dr. Death," because his expert testimony on behalf of the District Attorney's Office all but guaranteed a death sentence. That's what Adams received, thanks to Grigson, who told the jury he'd kill again if ever released. But Randall told the director: "I'm innocent." Well, of course he was; who on Death Row isn't? But Morris looked into it: "History, properly considered, is a mystery," the director told me in '04 when speaking about The Thin Blue Line. And he discovered: Adams wasn't lying. This is what we wrote in 2007 in summation:
The documentary alleged that [Dallas County District Attorney Henry] Wade's first assistant, Doug Mulder, withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. Adams' attorney maintained Mulder manipulated key witnesses. Mulder denied that and said he'd simply "forgotten" to turn over a witness statement pointing to another man. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered Dallas County to grant a new trial, and then-District Attorney John Vance dropped the charges.The real cop-killer, David Harris, told the Dallas Times Herald and District Court Judge Larry Baraka shortly after the film's release that he'd lied about Adams's involvement in the shooting. It took a while for D.A. John Vance to come around, but, finally, Adams was released in the spring of '89. Two years later Adams wrote a book about his case in 1991, but finally left Texas a few years later to lead "a quiet life in Columbus, Ohio." And that is where he died in October, at the age of 61. Few knew of his quiet farewell till an obit appeared in yesterday's paper, buried in the Metro section; the Associated Press picks up the tale today.
Adams wasn't the first whose wrongful conviction in Dallas County became national news; before Randall Dale Adams, Errol Morris and The Thin Blue Line, there was Lenell Jeter, Morley Safer and 60 Minutes. And God know he wouldn't be the last, as the parade of exonerees from the Dallas County courthouse reminds every few months. But as Adams's longtime attorney -- Randy Schaffer of Houston, who took the case pro bono in '82 -- tells the AP: "Within the context of the modern criminal justice system as we know it, he was the first innocent man, the first death row inmate exonerated based on innocence, even though in the court's opinion he was exonerated on the state's use of false testimony."
I vividly remember watching Morris' documentary and being awe struck by the horror story at the heart of Morris' film. It forever changed my view of the death penalty.
For proof that innocent men die in Texas (and elsewhere) look no further than the Bad Lawyer posts on the Cameron Todd Willingham case. Willingham was murdered by Texas. Governor Rick Perry, an assessory to the official killing, will be haunted by the spectre of the execution of Willingham, an Op-Ed at the New York Times claimed over the weekend. Good.