Randall Adams did not complain when Continental Flight 140 from Houston to Columbus took off 20 minutes behind schedule last Thursday. He was already twelve years late leaving Dallas County, Texas, which he says had become his "hell on earth." In 1976, several weeks after Adams found a job repairing pallets, he was arrested for the slaying of a Dallas policeman. At one point, with only three days to spare, he was saved from execution by a U.S. Supreme Court stay while the Justices considered a legal technicality.
Adams had been in jail for eight years when Errol Morris, an avant-garde film-maker from New York City, came to Texas to make a documentary about Dr. James Grigson, known as Dr. Death to defense lawyers for his consistent findings that convicted murderers were so unrepentant that they deserved execution. In its zeal to help Morris, the Dallas district attorney's office turned over the dusty records from Adams' trial. What Morris found in the boxes was more intriguing than Dr. Death: evidence of a prosecution willing to bend, if not break, the guarantees of a fair trial in its efforts to obtain a conviction. Morris abandoned his original project in order to tell Adams' story in The Thin Blue Line, which won two major film awards and helped Adams finally win his freedom.
The nightmare began Thanksgiving weekend in 1976, when Adams was picked up by David Harris, 16, after running out of gas. The two went to a drive-in movie. Adams claims Harris dropped him off at his motel room a little before 10 p.m., but Harris said the two tooled around Dallas with Adams driving until well after midnight. When they were stopped by a policeman, Harris claimed, he hunched down in the passenger seat as Adams pulled out a .22-cal. pistol and shot officer Robert Wood dead.
But everything else pointed to Harris. Both the car and the pistol had been stolen by Harris. The teenager had been in trouble before. Harris even boasted to some friends that he had killed Wood. Still, the prosecution bought Harris' story. Adams' attorney, Randy Schaffer, contends that Harris supplied two things the prosecutors wanted: an eyewitness (Harris) and someone to execute (Adams). Harris was too young for the death penalty.
Convicted and condemned, Adams was like the man in the dream whose lips form words but who cannot be heard. He got a major break when Schaffer, a scrappy young Houston lawyer, took his case in 1982 for expenses only. Then Morris began filming in 1985. The investigating officers sat before him in their best Sunday suits, preening for the camera, as did two prosecution witnesses whose stories fell apart. Most chilling of all, Harris all but confessed, saying to Morris, "I'm the one who knows" Adams is innocent.
Even so, prosecutors were determined to keep Adams in jail, discounting Harris' statements as the rantings of a condemned man. (Harris is on death row for a 1985 murder.) But on March 1, an appellate court unanimously threw out Adams' conviction, finding that the state was guilty of suppressing evidence favorable to Adams, deceiving the trial court and knowingly using perjured testimony.