Initially sentenced to death in 1977 for killing a Dallas police officer, Mr. Adams came within three days of being executed before he was saved by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1979. His sentence was then commuted by Texas Gov. Bill Clements to life in prison.
That waking nightmare, told in Morris’s 1988 film “The Thin Blue Line,” resonated with audiences across America. Mr. Adams became a symbol of a fallible criminal justice system that — aided by perjured witnesses and overzealous prosecutors — could convict the wrong man.
“It’s an everyman story,” said Morris in 1989, when Mr. Adams was released from prison. “A story about one of our deepest, darkest fears — of being strapped into an electric chair screaming: ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it’ — with nobody, absolutely nobody, willing to listen.”
Mr. Adams’s journey to what he called “the twilight zone” of incarceration began one
evening in late November 1976, when he was a 27-year-old day laborer drifting from job to job. A native of Ohio, he ran out of gas in Dallas and hitched a ride from a 16-year-old driving a blue Mercury Comet.
The teenager was David Ray Harris, who had a .22-caliber pistol and a long criminal record. The pair spent the evening together, smoking marijuana and visiting pawn shops and a drive-in movie theater.
Around midnight, a Dallas police officer was shot and killed after pulling over the blue car for missing headlights. When detectives tracked down Harris, he said Mr. Adams had pulled the trigger.
Mr. Adams said he had gone home at 10 p.m. and was asleep at the time of the shooting. No one believed his alibi. Harris’s testimony became a linchpin in the case, and Mr. Adams was convicted in 1977.
His unlikely savior was Morris, a filmmaker who by then had made two documentaries: “Gates of Heaven” (1978), about a California pet cemetery, and “Vernon, Florida” (1981), about a community of eccentrics.
Morris discovered Mr. Adams’s story by accident while doing research in Texas for another film.
He noticed discrepancies in witness testimony. Digging into case files, he discovered proof that detectives had coached witnesses to name Mr. Adams as the killer and that prosecutors had suppressed evidence favorable to him.
In the days following the murder, Harris had boasted of killing a police officer. The gun used in the crime was stolen from Harris’s father.
Harris had gone on to a long criminal career and was on death row when Morris confronted him on camera about his testimony in the Adams case. Harris admitted he had lied. Was Mr. Adams innocent? “I’m sure he is,” Harris said. “Because I’m the one who knows.”