The Thin Blue Line

This week (March 21) in 1989 Randall Adams walked out of prison after serving 12 years of a life sentence for a murder he did not commit.

In 1977, Adams, a 28-year-old drifter, was hitchhiking in Dallas when he was picked up by David Harris, a 16-year-old driving a stolen car.  According to Harris’s later testimony, Adams fatally shot police officer Robert Wood after Wood and his partner, Teresa Turko, stopped the car Adams and Harris were riding in.  They then sped off before Turko could identify the shooter.

Adams vehemently protested his innocence, admitting he had spent time with Harris but insisting he had been in his motel when the shooting occurred.  And in fact, Harris was the one initially picked up for questioning after police learned he had bragged to friends that he “offed a pig” in Dallas.  Facing a murder charge he fingered Adams.

Although the evidence suggested that Harris, not Adams, was the killer, Harris was a juvenile, making him ineligible for the death penalty, the usual punishment for murdering a police officer, and the Dallas district attorney was under intense pressure to get retribution.  As a result, Adams was put on trial for murder despite inconsistent testimony from Turko, but the prosecution’s case was bolstered by “eyewitnesses” Robert and Emily Miller, who identified Adams as the killer even though Emily Miller had earlier told police the killer was either Mexican or a light-skinned African-American, which described Harris.  When the defense learned of this and tried to recall Miller, the prosecutor falsely claimed she had disappeared.

Adams was found guilty but under Texas law he could only be sentenced to death if the jury believed he was psychologically capable of killing again.

Here Adams’ story takes a bizarre turn.  When the prosecution called a psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, to testify that Adams would kill again, it brought Adams to the attention of filmmaker Errol Morris, who was filming a documentary about Dr. Grigson, whose history of convincing juries to vote the death penalty had earned him the nickname “Dr. Death.”  Morris became convinced that Adams was innocent and changed his documentary’s focus from Grigson to Adams.

The result was the award-winning film The Thin Blue Line, so called because during Adams’ trial the prosecutor said the police represent “a thin blue line” between society and anarchy.  Morris’ film proved that a thin blue line also existed between the truth and lies, as perjury by prosecution witnesses and malfeasance by the prosecutors came to light.

One year after the film’s release, Adams — whose death sentence had been commuted to life — was also released.  He subsequently became an anti-death penalty activist before dying of a brain tumor in 2010.