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Documentary Review - The Thin Blue Line - A Film that Proved a Man's Innocence (1988)

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Kudos to Filmmaker Errol Morris for his mind-shattering documentary concerning a convicted murderer who was freed from jail as a result of Morris’ research and instinct in the process of producing “The Thin Blue Line.”  Errol Morris had gone to Texas to do a documentary on Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist who convinced juries that defendants deserved the death penalty because they would undoubtedly kill again if they were released.  Morris interviewed several convicts who were in prison because of Dr. Grigson’s testimony, including a man named Randall Adams.


Dallas, Texas

                                                            Dallas, Texas - Wikimedia


In 1976, on Thanksgiving weekend, Randall Adams was in Dallas County at a motel with his brother to begin a new job, and had run out of gas.  He was picked up by 16-year-old David Harris who had just stolen a car and had taken his father’s gun with him.  The two men went to have a beer and to smoke marijuana, and ended up going to a drive-in-theater.  Randall Adams testified later that he went back to his motel.  David Harris said they were stopped by a policeman and Randall Adams shot him as he approached the car.

Randall Adams is Accused of Murder

Police investigation revealed that Police Officer Robert Wood and his female partner pulled a blue car over only to warn the driver that his taillight was busted.  The female cop did not get the license plate of the car but said it was a blue Vega, whereas in reality it was a Comet, which prolonged the search for the car.  Shortly before Christmas, on December 21st, the police picked up Randall Adams.  Despite having a police record, David Harris was the prosecution’s main witness against Adams in the case.  His testimony may not have been sufficient, except that three eyewitnesses stepped forward later to confirm David Harris’ story.  Randall Adams had no criminal record prior to this incident.


Police Badge

                                                          Texas Police Badge - Wikimedia

The Prosecution Sought the Death Penalty

The circumstantial evidence against Randall Adams was inadequate, but the police were under pressure to solve the case.  David Harris was a more likely suspect because of a series of previous encounters with the law.  It was even revealed that David Harris had bragged to three people that he had killed the cop.  However, because a policeman had been killed, the prosecution could call for the death penalty.  Since David Harris at age 16 would not be eligible for such a severe punishment, Randall Adams, who was 28, became the scapegoat for the crime.

A Series of Falsehoods

Adams claimed that David Harris’ story was full of holes.  Harris claimed that Adams was driving when they were pulled over, which was not true.  He claimed that Adams pulled out the pistol when the policeman approached the car.  Adams was presented with a confession which he refused to sign, insisting that he was innocent.  The newspapers stated that he had signed a confession which was not true.  Randall Adams was being represented by a female attorney named Edith James.

The Female Officer’s Testimony

Officer Robert Woods’ partner said she had gotten out of the car and positioned herself at the back of the automobile.  The driver had a fur-lined collar, or it might have been just bushy hair.  She claimed there was just one person in the car.  Later, her testimony changed to favor the prosecutor’s assessment.

Three persons came forward to give testimony about what they had seen when it was announced that there was a $20,000 reward for information concerning the slaying of the policeman.  Their testimony was contradictory, as it was presented in the documentary.


Prison Bars

                                                               Prison Bars - Wikimedia

Dr. Grigson’s Findings

Randall Adams stated on the film that the psychiatrist, Dr. James Grigson, came to see him on April 15th, and asked him to do some drawings on a sheet of paper, and asked a few questions.  He stayed only 15 minutes and reported that Randall Adams would kill more people if he were released, even though Randall had no prior record or a history of violence.

Randall Adams is Convicted

Randall Adams was convicted and was denied a retrial.  It was not certain whether charges pending against David Harris were suspended as payment for his testimony.  Meanwhile, a woman recognized David Harris as the person who had beat her with a rolling pin while wearing only underwear.  After joining the army, he beat up one of his commanding officers.

David Harris’ Past

In the film, David Harris told about his early life.  When he was three years old, his four-year-old brother was drowned while their father was supposed to be watching them.  As a result, David’s father remained distant from his remaining son forever after.  This alienation would certainly produce a psychological problem for David.


Filmmaker Errol Morris

                                                               Errol Morris - Wikimedia

The Equivalent of a Confession

When asked if Randall Adams was innocent, David said “I’m sure he’s innocent.  The police didn’t blame him.  I blamed him.”  This is the equivalent of a confession.  At the time of the filming, Randall Adams was still in jail for the murder of Officer Robert Woods.  He was set free on March 15, 1988.  David Harris is on Death Row for an additional murder which occurred in 1985.

Heroic Effort by Errol Morris

It is only through the efforts of Errol Morris that Randall Adams is free today.  The media is a powerful vehicle for detecting truth or falsehood which is easily discerned on film.  The film successfully argued that Adams was wrongly convicted for murder because of the corrupt justice system which prevailed in Dallas County, Texas in the late 70’s.

Errol Morris stated that it was only after he had met David Harris that he began to suspect that the wrong man had been convicted for the murder of Officer Robert Woods.  Randall Adams had been yanked from a decent life, regarded as a drifter, and locked up for a crime that no reasonable person would believe that he had committed.  “The Thin Blue Line” not only managed to free an innocent man, but it also extracted a confession from the true killer.  Errol Morris deserves a medal for his efforts.  Instead, his film was not even honored with a nomination for an Academy Award, a gesture which would have dignified the process of selection used by the Academy.


The Thin Blue Line
Amazon Price: $14.98 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 12, 2016)


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