Randall Dale Adams

Adams after his arrest in 1976.

Adams after his arrest in 1976.

Filmmaker helped free innocent man

Sentenced to death in 1977 for the murder of a police officer in Dallas, Texas, Randall Dale Adams was exonerated as a result of information uncovered by film-maker Errol Morris and presented in an acclaimed 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line.

Patrolman Robert Wood was shot to death during a traffic stop on November 28, 1976, by sixteen-year-old David Ray Harris, who framed Adams to avoid prosecution himself. Another factor in the wrongful conviction was the surprise — and partly perjured — testimony of three eyewitnesses whose existence had been concealed from the defense until the witnesses appeared in the courtroom. A third factor was a statement Adams signed during interrogation that the prosecution construed as an admission that he had been at the scene of the crime.

The day before the murder, Adams was walking along a Dallas street after his car had run out of gasoline. Harris happened by, driving a stolen car. He offered Adams a ride and the two wound up spending the afternoon and evening together, drinking beer, smoking marijuana, pawning various items Harris had stolen, and going to a drive-in movie theater to watch porn movies. Adams then returned to a motel where he was staying.

Shortly after midnight, Wood and his partner, Teresa Turko, spotted Harris driving a blue car with no headlights. The officers stopped the car and, as Wood approached the driver's side, Harris shot him five times. Wood died on the spot. As the car sped off, Turko fired several shots, but missed. She did not get a license number. She seemed certain that there was only one person in the car — the driver.

Harris drove directly to his home in Vidor, 300 miles southeast of Dallas. Over the next several days, he bragged to friends that he had "offed a pig" in Dallas. When police in Vidor learned of the statements, they took Harris in for questioning. He denied having had anything to do with the murder, claiming he had said otherwise only to "impress" his friends. But when police told him that a ballistics test established that a pistol he had stolen from his father was the murder weapon, Harris changed his story. He now claimed that he had been present at the shooting, but that it had been committed by a hitchhiker he had picked up — Adams.

Adams, an Ohio native working in Dallas, was taken in for questioning. He denied any knowledge of the crime, but he did give a detailed statement describing his activities the day before the murder. Police told him he had failed a polygraph test and that Harris had passed one, but Adams remained resolute in asserting his innocence.

Despite the polygraph results, there were ample reasons to question Harris’s story, but police may have had a motive not to do so: When a police officer is murdered, authorities usually demand the most severe possible punishment, which in Texas, of course, was and is death. Harris was only sixteen and ineligible for the death penalty; Adams was twenty-seven and thus could be executed.

At trial before Dallas County District Court Judge Don Metcalfe and a jury, Turko testified that she had not seen the killer clearly, but that his hair was the color of Adams's. She also said that the killer wore a coat with a fur collar. Harris had such a coat, but Adams did not.

Adams took the stand and emphatically denied having any knowledge of the crime. But then the prosecution sprang two surprises. The first was the introduction of Adams's purported signed statement, which police and prosecutors claimed was a confession, although it said only — falsely, according to Adams — that when he was in the car with Harris, they had at one point been near the crime scene. The second was the testimony of three purported eyewitnesses whose existence had until then been unknown to the defense. One of these witnesses, Michael Randell, testified that he had driven by the scene shortly before the murder and, in the car that had been stopped by the officers, had seen two persons, one of whom he claimed was Adams. The other two witnesses, Robert and Emily Miller, had happened by at about the same time, but claimed to have seen only one person in the car — Adams.

Because the eyewitnesses were called only to rebut Adams's testimony, prosecutors claimed that Texas law did not require them to inform the defense of their existence before they testified. The weekend after their surprise testimony, however, the defense learned that Emily Miller had initially told police that the man she had seen appeared to be Mexican or a light-skinned African American. When the defense asked to recall the Millers to testify, the prosecution claimed that the couple had left town. In fact, the Millers had only moved from one part of Dallas to another. When the defense asked to introduce Emily Miller's statement, Judge Metcalfe would not allow it. He said it would be unfair to impeach her credibility when she was not available for further examination.

The jury quickly returned a verdict of guilty and turned to sentencing. Under Texas law, in order for Adams to be sentenced to death, the jury was required to determine, among other things, whether there was "beyond a reasonable doubt [a] probability" that he or she would commit future acts of violence. To establish that Adams met that oxymoronic criterion, the prosecution called Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist known as "Dr. Death," and Dr. John Holbrook, former chief of psychiatry for the Texas Department of Corrections.

Although the American Psychiatric Association has said on several occasions that future dangerousness was impossible to predict, Grigson and Holbrook testified that Adams would be dangerous unless executed. Grigson testified similarly in more than 100 other Texas cases that ended in death sentences. After hearing the psychiatrists, Adams's jury voted to sentence him to death. Twenty one months later, at the end of January 1979, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and death sentence. Judge Metcalfe scheduled the execution for May 8, 1979.

Adams was only three days away from execution when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. ordered a stay. Powell was troubled that prospective jurors with moral qualms about the death penalty had been excluded from service, even though they had clearly stated that they would follow the Texas law.

To most observers — including, initially, Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade (of Roe v. Wade fame) — the Supreme Court's language meant that Adams was entitled to a new trial. But a few days later Wade announced that a new trial would be a waste of money. Thus, he said, he was asking Governor Bill Clements to commute Adams's sentence to life in prison. When the governor promptly complied, Wade proclaimed that there now would be no need for a new trial. Adams, of course, thought otherwise, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with Wade. As a result of the governor's action, said the court, "There is now no error in the case."

In March 1985, Errol Morris arrived in Dallas to work on a documentary about Grigson — "Dr. Death." Morris's intent had not been to question the guilt of defendants in whose cases Grigson had testified but only to question his psychiatric conclusions. When Morris met Adams, the focus of the project changed.

Morris learned from Randy Schaffer, a volunteer Houston lawyer who had been working on the case since 1982, that Harris had not led an exemplary life after helping convict Adams. Harris had joined the Army and been stationed in Germany, where he had been convicted in a military court of a series burglaries and sent to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. A few months after his release, Harris had been convicted in California of kidnapping, armed robbery, and related crimes.

After his release from prison in California, and five months after Morris arrived in Dallas, Harris tried to kidnap a young woman named Roxanne Lockard in Beaumont, Texas. In an effort to prevent the abduction, Lockard's boyfriend, Mark Mays, exchanged gunfire with Harris. Mays was shot to death and Harris was wounded. For the Mays murder — a crime that would not have occurred if Dallas authorities convicted the actual killer of Officer Wood eight years earlier — Harris was sentenced to death.

Meanwhile, Morris and Schaffer discovered that Officer Turko had been hypnotized during the investigation and initially had acknowledged that she had not seen the killer — facts that the prosecution had illegally withheld from the defense. Morris and Schaffer also found that robbery charges against the daughter of eyewitness Emily Miller had been dropped after Miller agreed to identify Adams as Wood's killer. The new information, coupled with the fact that Miller initially had described the killer as Mexican or African American, became the basis for a new trial motion.

In 1988, during a three-day hearing on the motion before Dallas District Court Judge Larry Baraka, Harris recanted. "Twelve years ago, I was a kid, you know, and I'm not a kid anymore, and I realize I've been responsible for a great injustice," Harris told Baraka. "And I felt like it's my responsibility to step forward, to be a man, to admit my part in it. And that's why I'm trying to correct an injustice."

On December 2, 1988, Judge Baraka recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Adams be granted a new trial, and two months later he wrote a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommending that Adams be paroled immediately. The board refused, but on March 1 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously concurred with Baraka that Adams was entitled to a new trial. Three weeks later, Adams was released on his own recognizance, and two days after that, Dallas District Attorney John Vance, who had succeeded Wade, dropped all charges.

Harris was never tried for the murder of Officer Woods. On June 30, 2004, he was executed for the Mayes murder.

June 26, 2011: Case Update

— Michael L. Radelet