Randall Adams; freed from prison after film

By Douglas Martin
New York Times / June 26, 2011

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NEW YORK — Randall Dale Adams, who spent 12 years in prison before his conviction in the murder of a Dallas police officer was thrown out largely on the basis of evidence uncovered by a filmmaker, died in obscurity in October in Washington Court House, Ohio. He was 61.

Mr. Adams had chosen to live a quiet life divorced from his past, and when he died Oct. 30, 2010, of a brain tumor, the death was reported only locally, said his lawyer, Randy Schaffer. It was first widely reported Friday.

The film that proved so crucial to Mr. Adams was “The Thin Blue Line,’’ directed by Errol Morris and released in 1988. It told a harrowing story, and helped bring about Mr. Adams’s release the following year.

“We’re not talking about a cop killer who’s getting out on a technicality,’’ Morris said he was set free. “We’re talking about an unbelievable nightmare.’’

The story began on Nov. 27, 1976. Mr. Adams was walking along a Dallas street after his car had run out of gas when a teenager, David Ray Harris, came by in a stolen car and offered him a ride. The two spent the day drinking, smoking marijuana, and going to a drive-in movie.

Shortly after midnight, a Dallas police officer, Robert Wood, stopped a car for a traffic violation and was shot and killed. The investigation led to Harris, who accused Mr. Adams of the murder. Other witnesses corroborated his testimony, and Mr. Adams was convicted in 1977.

Sentenced to die by lethal injection, Mr. Adams appealed the verdict, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to overturn it. His execution was scheduled for May 8, 1979.

Three days before the execution, the US Supreme Court ordered a stay on the grounds that prospective jurors who had been uneasy about the death penalty were excluded during jury selection even though they had clearly said they would follow Texas law.

Governor Bill Clements went on to commute Mr. Adams’s sentence to life in prison. With the death penalty no longer an issue, the Texas appeals court ruled there was “now no error in the case.’’

In March 1985, Morris arrived in Dallas to work on a documentary about a psychiatrist whose testimony in death penalty cases was controversial.

In Dallas, Morris met Schaffer, who had been working on the case since 1982. The two began piecing together a puzzle that pointed to Harris’s guilt in the police shooting. Harris had by then accumulated a long criminal record and was on death row for an unrelated murder.

Morris and Schaffer knew from the records that Harris had bragged about killing a police officer but had then recanted and blamed Mr. Adams, and that the pistol used in the killing had been stolen from his father.

Their own investigation revealed that three witnesses had been improperly sprung on the defense and that they had committed perjury in their testimony. Moreover, a statement that Mr. Adams signed during an interrogation was misconstrued as an admission that he had been at the scene of the crime.

With so much evidence seeming to suggest Harris’s guilt, many Texans believed prosecutors had gone after Mr. Adams and not Harris because Harris, who was 16, was too young to be executed. In the murder of a police officer, the theory went, prosecutors almost always seek the most severe punishment.

Schaffer said Morris gained access to witnesses and others related to the case. “They forgot the script they learned for the trial,’’ he said. “They told the truth.’’

After the movie came out in 1988, the resulting outcry prompted a judge to grant another hearing, something Schaffer had not been able to accomplish. Harris recanted his previous testimony, without confessing. In 2004, Harris was executed for the other murder.

In March 1989, the Texas appeals court ruled Mr. Adams was entitled to a new trial because of the perjured testimony. Three weeks later, he was released on his own recognizance, and two days after that the Dallas district attorney dropped all charges.

Mr. Adams lived a peripatetic life afterward, first returning to his native Ohio, then moving to upstate New York, later returning to Texas, and finally settling again in Ohio. Schaffer said Mr. Adams gave speeches against the death penalty and married the sister of a man on death row.

Mr. Adams’ mother died in December, and he leaves at least one sister, Schaffer said.

Schaffer said that if Mr. Adams were found to be wrongly convicted under today’s law in Texas, he would get $80,000 for each year of incarceration. At the time his conviction was thrown out, wrongly convicted prisoners could get a lump sum payment of $25,000 if pardoned. But Mr. Adams was ineligible for the money. He had not been pardoned; his case had been dismissed.

He also did not receive the $200 given to prisoners when they are released on parole or on the completion of their sentences, Schaffer said. Again, Mr. Adams did not qualify.