Randall Dale Adams, profiled in documentary of his wrongful conviction, dead at 61

June 26, 2011

Randall Dale Adams, who spent 12 years in prison for killing a Texas policeman before documentary filmmaker Errol Morris unearthed new evidence that suggested he’d been framed and spurred his release, died in Washington Court House, Ohio. He was 61 and had a brain tumor.

Mr. Adams was at the center of a media whirlwind when his case was dismissed and he walked out a free man in 1989, but in recent years he had retreated into relative obscurity. His death Oct. 30 was first reported last week by the Dallas Morning News.

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.”

That recantation served as the powerful conclusion of “The Thin Blue Line,” which Washington Post film critic Desson Howe called “an awesome indictment of America.”

After the film was released, Texas authorities agreed to revisit Mr. Adams’s case.

A state appeals court reprimanded prosecutors for misconduct in the original trial and called for a new trial. Soon afterward, a Dallas district attorney dropped all charges against Mr. Adams.

He went home to Ohio and moved into a trailer with his mother, who had sold her suburban home to pay legal bills. Because he was not formally pardoned by the governor, Mr. Adams was ineligible for compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.

His life story was the only valuable thing he had, and he sued Morris, whom he described as “a godsend” and a “part of the family,” for rights to it.

“I’m not trying to take Errol Morris’s house or car, or his first-born child,” Mr. Adams said at the time. “It’s a legal question to settle, and as much as I hate to do it, it must be settled in a courtroom.”

Morris, who said he was hurt and surprised by the lawsuit, emphasized that he had gone $100,000 into debt to dig up the truth. “This movie is not ‘Batman’ or ‘Ghostbusters II,’ ” he told The Post. “My profits from the movie have been zero.”

The pair became estranged and settled out of court in 1989. Morris went on to win a best documentary Academy Award for his 2003 film, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.”

Mr. Adams co-authored a book about his ordeal, “Adams v. Texas.” He married a woman he met at a rally against the death penalty — the sister of a death-row inmate. They moved to a Houston suburb, where Mr. Adams worked as a vending-machine filler until his boss did a background check and discovered his past arrest. He fired Mr. Adams on the spot.

Humiliated, Mr. Adams called his lawyer, Randy Schaffer, for legal advice. “He was more upset over that than he was any time when I met with him when he was in prison,” Schaffer said in an interview Sunday. “He saw how difficult it was going to be to earn a living.”

Mr. Adams returned to Ohio. His mother Mildred died in January. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.

In years of television and print interviews, Mr. Adams maintained that he harbored no bitterness — not even toward David Harris, whose accusations derailed his life.

“In the beginning, I blamed David,” Mr. Adams told Texas Monthly. “But David did not have the power to arrest me, indict me, and sentence me to die. The problem is larger than David Harris. Our criminal justice system, on paper, is the best in the world. But we’re human, and so we make mistakes. If you execute and execute and execute, at some point you will execute an innocent man.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.