Randall Dale Adams, a former death row inmate who gained freedom after flaws in his conviction for the murder of a Dallas policeman were exposed in a critically acclaimed documentary, has died. He was 61.
Adams died Oct. 30, 2010, of a brain tumor, according to his attorney Randy Schaffer, who said he was told by Adams’ relatives. Adams had been living quietly in the Ohio city of Washington Court House. His death did not become widely known until Friday, when it was reported by The Dallas Morning News.
Adams, who had spent more than 12 years in a Texas prison, was the subject of “The Thin Blue Line,” directed by noted documentarian Errol Morris. The 1988 film uncovered suppressed evidence and perjured testimony.
The Texas appeals court ordered a new trial, but the Dallas district attorney’s office declined to file new charges, and Adams was freed in 1989.
“He was one of the first people in the country to be exonerated in a case that had that kind of profile,” Schaffer said Sunday.
Adams was born Dec. 17, 1948, according to public records. The youngest of five children, he grew up in Grove City, Ohio. His father was a coal miner.
Adams’ ordeal began in November 1976 when he moved to Dallas to find work.
On Nov. 27, his car ran out of gas, and he hitched a ride with 16-year-old David Harris, who had an extensive criminal record and was driving a stolen car.
The two spent the day together, drinking beer and smoking marijuana and ended up at a drive-in theater, where they eventually parted.
Early the next morning, Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood was shot and killed after stopping a car for a traffic violation. The investigation led to Harris, who named Adams as the killer. Adams, who had no prior criminal record, was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to death.
Within three days of execution in May 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his death sentence over an error in jury selection. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
Morris learned of Adams’ case when he went to Dallas to work on a documentary about a psychiatrist whose testimony helped to convict Adams and others.
Morris tracked down three witnesses whose testimonies had helped to convict Adams and persuaded them to appear on camera. Each gave accounts that dramatically differed from their testimonies.
“I find that I’ve become a kind of director-detective,” Morris told The Times in 1988. “I’ve worked very hard to clear Randall Adams and I’m still working hard. I will not give up until he’s freed or exonerated.”
The movie prompted a judge to grant a new hearing at which Harris recanted much of his earlier testimony, although he did not confess to killing the officer. Harris was later executed for another murder.
Adams spoke frequently to the media and proclaimed that he was not bitter about his experiences. That seemed to change after he was fired from a job in Texas when his employer learned of his wrongful conviction. He had never received any restitution for his many years behind bars, said Schaffer, and he later sued Morris to regain the right to tell his own story.
“He told everybody when he was released that he wasn’t bitter and was just glad to be out of jail, and that was a mantra that he repeated for a long time, but after he was fired, he was bitter,” Schaffer said.
Morris’ later films include 2003’s “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” which won an Academy Award.
Adams is survived by two sisters, Schaffer said. Adams had married the sister of a man currently on Texas’ death row, but Schaffer was uncertain if they were married at the time of Adams’ death.