Two decades after its release, Errol Morris’ classic death-row exoneration documentary continues to reverberate
A little after midnight on Nov. 28, 1976, Dallas police officers Robert Wood and Teresa Turko made a routine traffic stop for a car driving without headlights. When Wood approached the vehicle, the driver pulled a handgun and shot him five times. The car sped off into the night while Turko fired hopelessly in its wake and Wood died at her feet. A cop killer was on the loose in Dallas.
Turko’s recollections of the driver were meager, and 50 investigators worked through the sparse clues without a single witness. But less than a month later, on Dec. 21, Dallas police arrested Randall Dale Adams, a 28-year-old itinerant laborer from Ohio. Though Adams claimed his innocence, a jury found him guilty and the judge handed him the death sentence. The man once branded in court as “Charles Manson” was safely locked away. Dallas breathed again.
Nine years later, in 1985, a documentarian named Errol Morris drifted into town from New York. Morris had never heard of Randall Dale Adams; he was in Dallas to speak to a doctor. By the time Morris left three years later, he had freed an innocent man, identified a murderer, uncovered widespread corruption and earned death threats, law suits and debt. He had also made the finest documentary film of all time—an epic story of life, death and the misuse of power that has repercussions to this day. He called it The Thin Blue Line.
In the communal area of a sleek Santa Monica film studio, eager assistants battle for tasks. One takes my car keys, another fetches water and a third walks nervously towards a tall, 62-year-old man holding court over a group of producers. It’s his voice I recognize first, the measured delivery that plays an off-camera supporting role in The Thin Blue Line. Tanned, imposing and very much the focal point of a dozen people’s attention, Morris greets my arrival with a grin. “You caught me,” he says.
I wait for Morris in a nearby office, and he arrives apologizing for the delay. He’s cutting a new film, a documentary on a British sex scandal from the 1970s; he’s under pressure and a little flustered and time is short, but we’ll still be sitting here hours later. Knocks at the door-—gentle, then persistent—will be ignored. Once Morris starts talking about the film that changed his life and others’ he’s trapped once more by the story, which begins with a man called Dr. Death.
“Dr. Grigson,” Morris says. “That was the beginning.”
The United States Supreme Court temporarily outlawed capital punishment in 1972, but individual states could circumvent the ruling through a reshaping of their processes in capital cases. Texas didn’t hesitate. In 1973, the state announced a new two-stage approach to death penalty trials: First, the establishment of guilt; second, a psychiatric examination to determine if the convicted would re-offend. If the report said yes, the convict was sentenced to death. Dr. James Grigson was a prominent Dallas psychiatrist so predictable in his opinion that death-row inmates would, indeed, offend again that he was awarded the nickname Dr. Death.
Before The Thin Blue Line, Morris had made a couple of films and then hit a professional rut. At age 32, he’d just spent two years earning a living as a New York private detective when he stumbled across Grigson’s story. After securing backing, Morris packed up his camera and headed to Dallas.
In person and on camera, Grigson was helpful, educated and boring. But he suggested that Morris look at the other side of the equation for material: the dozens of death row and former death row prisoners the doctor had evaluated. After befriending a prison official, Morris managed to get interviews with a dozen or so prisoners. The last was Randall Dale Adams, who had then been in prison for nine years.
After coming within three days of execution in 1979, Randall’s death sentence had been suddenly commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“He was so paranoid about speaking to me,” Morris says. “He wouldn’t talk on camera but suggested I came back. There was no real reason for me to do so. He said he was innocent but they all said that. For whatever reason I came back the second time, because he interested me, and he told me his story.”
According to the police and the prosecution, this is why Adams was sitting in Huntsville Prison:
In the days following Officer Wood’s murder, a 16-year-old named David Harris told several friends in his hometown of Vidor, Texas that he had “off’d a pig,” showing them a gun he claimed was the murder weapon. Vidor is a small town 300 miles from Dallas, and local police soon heard of Harris’ boasts. The teenager recanted his claim, but a stolen car in his possession matched Officer Turko’s loose memory of the vehicle driven by Wood’s killer. Harris also possessed a gun stolen from his father. When ballistics tests confirmed it as the murder weapon, Harris spectacularly changed his story. It was then that Adams’ name was introduced.
Harris told police in Vidor, and later in Dallas, that he had picked up a hitchhiking Adams on the day of the murder. They had spent the evening drinking, smoking marijuana, visiting an adult drive-in. Then, with Adams at the wheel, they’d cruised the darkened streets of Dallas. When police pulled them over, Harris said, Adams took the gun from him and shot Wood.
The police tracked Adams to a Dallas motel. He admitted he’d hitched a lift from Harris after running out of gas and that the two had wound up spending the day in the manner described, but Adams insisted that Harris had dropped him off at the motel around two hours before Wood was shot. Adams claimed that after he and his brother turned down Harris’ request to share their motel room, Harris stormed off and Adams didn’t see him again.
In The Thin Blue Line, Adams tells Morris that the Dallas police threatened him with a gun if he wouldn’t sign a confession. He refused; they went to trial.
Officer Turko testified first. She’d originally described Wood’s killer as wearing a fur-lined collar, but in court—after two weeks of Internal Affairs interviews—she suggested it “might have been bushy hair.” (Harris had worn a fur-lined parka the night of the murder. Adams, at the time, had a distinctively unkempt hairstyle.) In the documentary, recalling how Turko’s testimony had changed, Adams’ defense lawyer Edith James recalls being “elated.” Turko was unconvincing, which left only Harris—and, James remembered thinking, “nobody believes him.”
But then the prosecution unveiled three eyewitnesses: married couple Emily and R.L. Miller, and local salesman Michael Randell. Both the Millers and Randell said they had driven past the stopped car just before the shooting, and all three identified Adams as having been the driver. The testimony turned the case. The jury retired for the night before returning to find Adams guilty. After evaluation by Dr. Grigson (who offered the Charles Manson comparison), Adams was given the death penalty.