Sunday, June 26, 2011

Randall Dale Adams, Rest in Peace

Randall Dale Adams - Innocent
David Ray Harris - Guilty
That's the mug shot of Randall Dale Adams.  Charged in the 1976 shooting death of Robert Wood, officer in the Dallas Police Department.  Sentenced to die.  Imprisoned for 12 years.  Freed when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a writ and ordered a new trial based on perjured testimony at Adams's trial and on the prosecutor's lying to the court and defense counsel to conceal the perjury.  Rather than have a new trial at which Adams would pretty clearly be acquitted (since by then it was pretty well established that it was 16-year-old David Harris (on death row himself by then, for another killing) not Adams, who murdered Officer Wood.
The evidence that Adams was innocent and Harris guilty was really developed by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line.
It's difficult, I think, to overestimate the importance of that film.  I'm not speaking cinematically, though I could be.  
Janet Maslin, reviewing it for the NY Times, wrote that
Mr. Morris's film is both an investigation of the murder and a nightmarish meditation on the difference between truth and fiction, an alarming glimpse at the many distortions that have shaped Mr. Adams's destiny.
Both Maslin and Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, called it a "reverie."  And it won whole bunches of awards, detailed in Wikipedia (notes deleted, links retained):
The Thin Blue Line won Best Documentary honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, the National Board of Review, and the National Society of Film Critics. Morris himself won an International Documentary Association Award, an Edgar Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant (1989). The film was marketed as "nonfiction" rather than as a documentary which disqualified it from being considered in that category for an Academy Award.
But the film's cinematic importance isn't what I'm talking about.  I'm not even talking about the fact that Morris's detective work and the film (closing as it does with what is, essentially, David Harris's confession*) are largely responsible for freeing an innocent man from prison.  That was of overriding importance to Adams, of course, and it's a great feat, but it's not that fact.
Instead, it's this.
There was some crime fiction, a few movies, an episode of The Adventures of Superman (the old George Reeves TV series), other odds and ends.  What there wasn't was any sort of broad-based understanding that our criminal justice system made serious mistakes.  Oh, there were questions about Sacco and Vanzetti and Bruno Richard Hauptman and the Rosenbergs, but those were understood to be abberations.  And they were all in the past.  We'd fixed all that.  We were better now.
And then, suddenly, The Thin Blue Line came out.
Morris laid out the evidence and showed things couldn't have happened as the state claimed at trial.  He got the witnesses to say, on camera, that they lied.  And why.  And most tellingly, he had, at the end of the film, this exchange with David Harris.
Morris:  "Is Randall Adams an innocent man?"
Harris:  "I'm sure he is."
Morris: "How can you be sure?"
Harris:  "Because I'm the one that knows."
Damn. Cinematically powerful.  Starkly compelling.  Coldly horrific.
But more, The Thin Blue Line was essentially irrefutable evidence that the system wasn't fixed, wasn't perfect.
Prosecutors cheated and the system didn't catch it.  Witnesses lied, and the jury didn't figure it out.
Errol Morris took our innocence.  And made the issue of innocence real for a generation.
Adams moved to Ohio when he got out of prison.  He spoke out some.  He litigated some.  At one point it looked like we might end up using him as a defense witness in a capital trial in Texas, although that didn't happen.
He died, it turns out, on October 30 last year.
I missed it.  My excuse is that the NY Times did, too.  The Times just corrected that oversight with a moving obituary.
Randall Dale Adams came within three days of execution at one point, but we didn't kill him. Now he's dead.
The Thin Blue Line is still there for us.

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