Errol Morris: Following The Thin Blue Line

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These days, beyond Harris and Adams, the cast of The Thin Blue Line is difficult to track down. Dr. Grigson is dead, and I receive no response from the Dallas detectives, lawyers and judges who secured the death penalty for Adams.

I do find Adams’ lawyer, Randy Schaffer, working his own respected practice in Houston. He is animated and scathing about the case, which is still the basis of lectures he gives to college students.

“If Harris had been 17 and eligible for the death penalty then they would have prosecuted him. The name Randall Adams would not come up. I’ve got no doubt about that,” he says. “...The system was 110% dishonest… The judge was a piece of garbage and clearly in the pocket of the prosecution… Did they frame an innocent man? I don’t know.”

Schaffer disputes Morris’ memory of the fractious months after Adams’ release. “Adams had signed for Morris a form giving him his whole life rights for $10,” Schaffer says. “It was only because that $10 never got paid that I got Adams his rights back and Morris wanted to renegotiate.” Schaffer admits that he and Morris “didn’t really get along” but freely opines that The Thin Blue Line played a “huge role” in Adams’ release because it allowed a judge to free a cop killer without worrying about public outcry. The case and the movie are prominently mentioned on Schaffer’s website and he says he gets business “to this day” as a result of Randall Adams. He says he and his former client share a “Christmas-card relationship.”

I also find Sam Kittrell, who sent Harris to Dallas in the Wood case and also arrested him for the murder of Mark Mays. Today, he’s the Chief of Police of Orange County, Texas and responds to my approach with an email approaching 1,500 words. “I apologize for rambling so much,” he says “This case has stayed with me throughout my law enforcement career.”

An intelligent, careful man closing in on retirement age, Kittrell speaks openly about his involvement in the Adams conviction. “I didn’t trust David; I always thought he was the shooter,” he says. But he had no way to make that belief count. The Dallas Police were older, more senior—and included Gus Rose, well-known in police circles for his heavy involvement in the initial police investigation into the JFK assassination. “It was kind of daunting.”

To this day, Morris doesn’t believe that the Dallas Police deliberately set out to convict an innocent man in the Adams case: “They were under pressure to find a perpetrator, convict him and execute him.” Kittrell agrees, saying the collection of eyewitnesses provided by the Dallas police had a “Keystone Kops” element, and more seriously lamenting the fact that he wasn’t called as a prosecution witness. “I’d hate to speculate,” he says carefully, “But I got [the] impression that they didn’t want what I had to say.”

I’ve tried to contact Adams, to no avail. For a long time after his release, he was a feted member of the American anti-death penalty movement; he avoided media interaction but offered his support to events and fundraising efforts around the country. I tracked down a friend of his who told me Adams moved from Texas with his wife five years ago, and now deliberately cultivates a life of complete anonymity—such is his right, of course. The friend forwarded my emails to Adams, but they went unanswered. Schaffer has also passed along word to Adams that I would like to speak to him—again, ignored.

David Harris’ unavailability is more definite: He was executed in June 2004 for the murder of Mark Mays. His last words were “Sir, in honor of a true American hero, ‘let’s roll.’ Lord Jesus receive my spirit. I’m done.” Morris had spoken to him the night before. “That was hard,” the filmmaker recalls. “He didn’t seem to believe that it was going to happen.” I ask what Harris thought of the documentary. “I don’t think he ever saw it,” Morris says. “I’d expect he didn’t.”

Kittrell visited Harris a week before execution. “He fully admitted to me that he was the one who did it,” Kittrell says. “He wrote a letter to Officer Wood’s wife.”

I play Morris the final few minutes of The Thin Blue Line. Towards the end, there’s David Harris, trapped in time, happily leading Morris to the only conclusion he could reach. And then we’re looking at a Dictaphone. It’s a beautifully lit shot, but it’s just of a Dictaphone. After filming four reels on that December 1986 evening in Dallas County Jail, Morris’ camera had broken down. He managed to buy a little more time the following morning, when he met with Harris for the second and final occasion. The Dictaphone is all he had to record their conversation.

On screen, the camera cuts closer and closer to the whirring tape. Harris answers the questions Morris had waited three years to ask; subtitles parse out the garbled words. Harris agrees with Morris’ suggestion that Adams was “a pretty unlucky fellow.” When Harris concurs that Adams is innocent, Morris asks how he can be sure. “’Cause I’m the one that knows,” Harris drawls. Morris wonders if Harris was surprised that the police blamed Adams. “They didn’t blame him,” corrects Harris. “I did.”

The last words of the movie, which linger on the screen, come from Harris. He remarks that perhaps the reason for the whole story, the reason Adams was currently sitting in prison with his life stolen, was because “he didn’t have no place for somebody to stay that helped him that night… I landed him where he’s at. That might be the reason. That might be the only, total reason why he’s where he’s at today.”

The Thin Blue Line closes with the details of Harris’ and Adams’ incarcerations. In both cases, the information is now outdated. Adams is free, Harris is dead. Watching Harris on screen, Morris’ demeanor has shifted from our earlier conversation. He is silent. “I liked David Harris,” he eventually says. “I don’t think he was a good guy. I think in many ways he was a monster. But he was a compelling, interesting figure. He’s at the heart of the story. Randall Adams is the fall guy.”

The mention of Adams sparks more discussion on his and Morris’ unlikely estrangement. Morris has to go, but before he does, he says, “I’d like to reach out to Adams. I think that maybe I should.” I pass a final email to Adams with this message. Nothing comes back.

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