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‘Thin Blue Line’ in a Different Court

After spending 13 years in a cell, waging a legal war against the Dallas County justice system that wrongly convicted him of murdering a police officer, Randall Dale Adams is still fighting for his life--or more appropriately, his life story.

This time his opponent is Errol Morris, the film director whose critically acclaimed documentary “The Thin Blue Line” turned Adams into a cause celebre and was instrumental in getting his murder verdict overturned and eventually getting Adams released from prison.

“From today forward, I want to direct my life, my case, the way I feel it should be directed,” Adams, 40, said Wednesday from his home in Grove City, Ohio.

Adams has always embraced and praised Morris for his role in freeing him from prison. He says he still counts Morris as a close “part of the family,” but is forced to look out for his own interests. Morris said he was shocked to learn Adams is suing him.

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“Quite clearly our relationship has changed,” Morris said. “I’m hurt and dismayed by all of it, because none of this needed to happen. It’s been unnecessary.”

Adams’ lawsuit charges that Morris lost his rights to Adams’ story in December, 1988, because he did not exercise an option to extend a two-year agreement. Morris and his attorney claim that the option was exercised, and in two weeks they will try to prove it in a federal court.

“Early on in our relationship, during his first interview in April, 1985, Randall signed a release allowing me to use (that interview) in ‘The Thin Blue Line,’ ” said Morris, who lives in Cambridge, Mass. “At the time he did not want any money from the film. He wanted a release from prison--he felt receiving money would taint the evidence that might be used to secure his release.”

Adams signed a contract in prison giving Morris exclusive rights to his story. It stated that Adams would be paid $10 for a documentary, $40,000 for a TV movie and $60,000 for a dramatic theatrical release. Upon Adams’ release, however, his attorney, Randy Schaffer, sought more than the nominal $10 Adams reputedly agreed to receive for his participation in “The Thin Blue Line.”

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Schaffer contended that “The Thin Blue Line” was not a documentary but a dramatic theatrical release, and therefore his client was entitled to $60,000. He also said that Adams did not receive a second $10 payment by 1988, which--assuming the film was a documentary--would have given Morris lifelong rights to Adams’ story.

After failing to reach a settlement of any kind, or receive legal proof of the second $10 payment, Schaffer filed a lawsuit two weeks ago in a Texas state district court.

“Everyone is judging Randall harshly,” Schaffer said. “But look at it from the opposite side. Morris got paid for the movie. He got critical acclaim. He got public acclaim. And he got personal satisfaction--his work reaching fruition in Adams’ release. Adams has been locked up for 12 years without any compensation. What kind of person would try and prevent Adams fair compensation for his story?”

“We received a letter in May that said Randall was dissatisfied with his payment, how poorly he had been treated,” said Morris’ New York attorney, Arthur Klein, who moved the case to federal court because of its complexity.

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“It was from that point on, almost immediately, we tried to make him happy with some sort of settlement. We went for two months trying to settle on a fair figure. I was surprised by the lawsuit. In my entire legal history, I’ve never (received) a lawsuit like this without knowledge and without notice.”

Adams denies the suggestion that the lawsuit is about money. He will not even refer to it as a lawsuit.

“I’m not trying to take Errol Morris’ house or car, or his first-born child,” Adams said. “I’m not asking for money or any compensation. This is a court order for both of us, an order telling both sides not to do anything with the Adams case until we can determine who owns the rights. It’s a legal question to settle, and as much as I hate to do it, it must be settled in a courtroom.”

Adams has been approached with book and movie offers and says he is concerned mostly with how truthfully his story is told, not how much it pays.

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“Money is not the issue,” he said. “If all I was after was money, I would do my best to sue Texas right now, which I’m not trying to do. If anybody owes me or my family anything, it’s the State of Texas.

“This is in the best interest, I feel, not only of my family but of the public. It’s been 13 years. My family has something to say. They have a story to tell. I have a story to tell. . . . It is mine. It is my right. And I want the power to see the story told the way I would like to have it told.”

The dramatic story began in 1976, when Adams, an Ohio high school graduate with no criminal record, traveled to Dallas because he heard there was work to be found there. About two weeks after his arrival, his car ran out of gas. Sixteen-year-old David Harris, pulled up in a 1972 Mercury Comet and offered to give him a lift.

Early the next morning, Dallas patrolman Robert Woods was killed with five shots from a .22-caliber pistol after he had stopped a 1972 Mercury Comet with no headlights.

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In the ensuing courtroom drama, the prosecuting attorney allegedly lied and withheld crucial evidence. The jury did not know, for instance, that one surprise eyewitness who named Adams as the killer had originally been unable to pick him out of a lineup.

Adams was sentenced to death. Harris, who had an extensive criminal record, was set free.

One month later, Harris was arrested, and later convicted, in connection with another murder.

“In a morbid sense, I understand what happened to me,” said Adams, whose sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. “In Dallas County, the Wood murder was the longest unsolved murder. They sacrificed me to public outrage, to appease the common good.”

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Errol Morris had never heard of Randall Dale Adams when he went to Texas in 1985 to make a documentary. He was, instead, pursuing an infamous Texas psychiatrist whose testimony had helped send Adams and 26 others to Death Row.

In the course of his research, Morris came across Adams and his story. When he interviewed Harris, who all but confessed to the murder of Wood on camera, Morris became assured of Adams’ innocence.

“The Thin Blue Line” took three years to complete, but its stylized recreation of events and convincing testimony stirred enough controversy and public sympathy in Dallas to grant Adams a hearing in which Adams’ lawyer, Schaffer, asked Harris point-blank if Adams had killed the policeman.

“No, he did not,” Harris responded under oath. “Randall Adams knew nothing about this offense and was not in the car at the time.”

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One of the most noted results of “The Thin Blue Line” was the unique bond formed between Adams and Morris. The film maker shared with the media his soul-searching quest to free Adams and Adams has publicly thanked Morris. But somewhere along the path to freedom the friendship appears to have soured. Although both convey respect for one another, Adams and Morris say they have not spoken directly for weeks. They communicate and receive all messages through their jockeying attorneys.

“There is a reason I haven’t called him,” Morris said. “I felt to plead my case with (Adams), given the nature of my relationship with him over the last four years, should be unnecessary. The last time I saw him was when I appeared at a benefit screening, at my own expense, of ‘The Thin Blue Line’ in Columbus, Ohio. I arranged for him to show the film for free in order to raise money for him and the family.”

Morris claims the distribution money he received from Miramax Films covered his production costs but there was no profit to him, and that he is still paying off debts incurred from making his documentary. The movie, which won festival awards and critical praises throughout the country, grossed about $1.3 million.

The rights issue is confused by the fact that neither side seems sure what the other is offering. Morris said the lawsuit is unnecessary because he has offered to give Adams all rights to his story, an offer his attorney Klein says he knows nothing about.

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At the same time, Morris acknowledges that he has had book and movie offers himself, and he doesn’t want to relinquish the right to exploit his own involvement in the Randall Adams case.

Adams said he doesn’t want to prevent Morris from doing anything further, but he wants to be in control.

“The term lawsuit sounds terrible,” Adams said. “I still have great admiration for Errol Morris. I still respect him highly. As far as I’m concerned we’re still on good grounds. I just want to figure out who has the rights to this story.

“After that, if Errol wants to do anything with the story, I’d like to say, ‘Hey, approach me, Errol. You have first choice.’ But I’d also like to be able to say, ‘Sorry, Errol, I feel I’ve had a better offer.’ ”

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