Anybody can convict a guilty man. It takes talent to convict an innocent man.
- alleged to have been said by Assistant District Attorney Doug Mulder
Before his arrest for murder, military veteran and intinerant laborer Randall Dale Adams'
only brush with the law was a ticket for DUI
. Throughout his ordeal Adams would maintain his innocence, but despite his protestations a jury would convict him and the State of Texas would sentence him to die. Adams would eventually come within three days of being executed
. Finally, in 1989 - after nearly 13 years in prison - Adams was proved innocent
and released; just one of the more than one-hundred death row inmates in America that have been exonerated
and freed since the resumption of the death penalty in 1976.
The case of Randall Dale Adams has nearly all the elements that have called into question the use of the death penalty; a poor defendant with no resources for adequate legal representation, egregious prosecutorial misconduct, and a public that pays little or no attention unless the case becomes a cause célèbre.
The Murder and Investigation
Shortly after midnight on November 28, 1976, Dallas Police Officer Robert Wood and his partner, Teresa Turko, made a routine traffic stop - a car driving without its headlights on. As Officer Wood approached the car, the driver let loose with a hail of bullets - striking Wood five times. Officer Wood, a Native American and Vietnam Veteran, died at the scene. Officer Turko, training to be one of the first female patrol officers in west Dallas, fired several shots as the car sped away. She did not get a license plate number, but knew that the car was blue, and seemed certain that there was only one person - the driver - in the car. She also noted that the driver was wearing a distinctive coat with a furred fringe.
In the days following the murder, word came to the Dallas police department that a teenager 300 miles away in Vidor, Texas was bragging that he'd "offed a pig." 16-year old David Harris was investigated. He'd told eight different people when, where, and how he'd killed officer Wood. He was found in posession of a stolen blue car, a .22 caliber pistol he'd stolen from his father, and a fur-fringed jacket. The pistol's ballistics matched those of the murder weapon and Harris admitted he'd been in Dallas the night of the murder. Though a juvenile, Harris also had an extensive criminal record.
Perhaps to the untrained eye this would seem a pretty solid case against David Harris. But David Harris - as a 16 year old - couldn't be charged with a capital crime. In fact, even if convicted, the most he'd serve would be six months for the killing of a police officer. So the police arrested Randall Dale Adams for the murder of Robert Wood.
In the beginning, I blamed David, but David did not have the power to arrest me, indict me, and sentence me to die. The problem is larger than David Harris. Our criminal justice system, on paper, is the best in the world. But we're human, and so we make mistakes. If you execute and execute and execute, at some point you will execute an innocent man. -- Randall Dale Adams
Why Randall Adams? Because David Harris, despite his boasts to friends that he'd "offed a pig," under police questioning changed his story. He claimed that he had been present at the shooting, but that the shooting was committed by a hitch-hiker
he'd picked up - Randall Dale Adams.
According to Adams, on the afternoon preceding the murder Adams' car ran out of gas. David Harris - driving a blue car - offered Adams a ride, which Adams accepted. The two had a few beers together and partied for a few hours - Adams even offering to help David Harris get a job. The last Adams claimed he saw of Harris was around 10pm when Harris dropped him off at his motel.
Prosecutors chose to believe David Harris and charged Randall Dale Adams with the murder of Officer Wood.
The State was guilty of suppressing evidence favorable to the accused, deceiving the trial court during Adams’s trial, and knowingly using perjured testimony. -- Appeals Court Judge M. P. Duncan
On trial for his life, Randall Adams had to rely on a court appointed public defender - a lawyer who specialized in real estate law!
Assistant District Attorney Doug Mulder had never lost a capital case. He wasn't going to let this be his first loss. The prosecution's case had five major points:
- A signed 'confession' by Randall Dale Adams,
- The eyewitness testimony of David Harris;
- The eyewitness testimony of Officer Turko;
- Testimony by three 'surprise'
eyewitnesses identifying Adams, and
- The testimony of Dr James Grigson (sentencing)
- Randall Adams had tried to cooperate with the police - even providing a signed and detailed affidavit
of his activities the day of the murder. At trial the prosecution
and police claimed this statement was a confession
because in it Adams said that he and Harris drove through an intersection
near where the murder later occurred. That's right, admitting he'd driven near
the murder scene several hours earlier was equal to a confession.
David Harris' Testimony - Harris received immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. Furthermore, the trial judge refused to allow his extensive criminal record to be entered as evidence.
Officer Turko's Testimony - Officer Turko originally said she never saw the killer clearly. This information was withheld from the defense. At trial, though, she was unequivocably able to identify Adams as the killer. Apparently this was after hypnosis - again withheld from the defense and in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 US 83 (1963).
'Surprise' Eyewitness Testimony - On the last day of the trial, the prosecution called three purported eyewitnesses -Emily and Bill Miller, and Michael Randell - whose existence had until then been unknown to the defense. Prosecutors concluded that Texas law did not require them to inform the defense of their existence. In the days following these surprise witnesses the defense learned that Emily Miller had told police originally 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 for Illinois. In fact, the Millers had only moved from one part of Dallas to another and their location was known to the prosecution. When the defense asked to introduce Emily Miller's original statement, the trial judge would not allow it. He said it would be unfair to impeach her credibility when she was not available for further examination.
The prosecution only found its three witnesses after offering a $20,000 reward and an all expense paid stay at Dallas motel during the trial. The first witness, Emily Miller, had a daughter who was facing robbery charges in another county and Mulder agreed to drop the charges in exchange for Emily's testimony. Emily testified to witnessing Adams in the driver's seat of the car at the time of the shooting and she positively identified Adams in a police line-up.
After the trial all three witnesses recanted. Emily Miller admitted to being directed to pick Adams out of the line-up after she chose the wrong man. Robert Miller was quoted as saying; "I didn't see anything." And Randell admitted to being drunk "out of his mind" when he passed the scene.
The Testimony of Dr Grigson - 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 probability beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant would commit future acts of violence. To establish that Adams met that criterion, the prosecution called Dr. James Grigson, a Dallas psychiatrist known as "Dr. Death."
Dr. Grigson interviewed me for 15 minutes. He did not ask about the crime, only about my family. The only other thing he wanted to know was my interpretation of: "a rolling stone gathers no moss," and of, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." At trial he testified for 2 hours - 1 ½ hours about his background, awards, expertise, etc.; ½ hour about our interview. - Randall Dale Adams
Although the American Psychiatric Association
was on record that future behavior was impossible to predict, Grigson testified that he had diagnosed Adams as having a sociopathic personality disorder. On the scale of sociopathy
, Grigson stated, "I would place Mr. Adams at the very extreme, worse or severe end of the scale. You can't get beyond that." Grigson further claimed that "there is nothing known in the world today that is going to change this man, we don't have anything." He also emphatically announced that Adams would continue to be a "threat to society
," after asserting that Mr. Adams would have no regard for the lives or property of others, wherever they might be: "It wouldn't matter where it was or whose life, you or a guard or a janitor or whoever it might be." Not surprisingly, the jury found that Adams represented a danger to society and sentenced him to death.
The court judge stated at my death sentencing hearing “may God have mercy on your soul.” I will leave it to God to judge Dr. Grigson and the State of Texas. -- Randall Dale Adams
The Thin Blue Line
Adams appealed the conviction
, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the verdict 9-0. Adams was scheduled for execution on May 8, 1979. Less than three days before the execution, 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 jury service -- even though they had stated that they would follow Texas law. The Supreme Court
then proceeded to hold 8-1 that the jury-selection procedure violated Witherspoon v. Illinois
, 391 US 510 (1968), and remanded
the case for further proceedings.
To most observers this meant that Adams would get a new trial - one he would probably win. So prosecutors asked the governor to commute Adams' sentence to life in prison, then claimed that a new trial was unnecessary since the Supreme Court ruling concerned the death penalty sentencing phase and not the determination of innocence or guilt. Adams' lawyers disagreed and appealed, but once again the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled against Adams. As a result of the governor's action, said the court, "There is now no error in the case, and the judgment of conviction will be affirmed." It was by this time 1981. Randall Dale Adams had spent 4 years in prison. His death sentence had been overturned, but now he faced life in prison.
Although we have on rare occasions exonerated people who've been wrongly convicted, it's only been because of the accidental involvement of the popular media. It's not been because the courts have taken initiative in those cases. - Raoul Schonemann of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association
Four more years would pass and Randall Adams was still languishing in prison. Then a young film maker, Errol Morris
, arrived in Dallas to work on a documentary
about James Grigson - "Dr. Death." Morris's intent was not to question the guilt
of defendants in whose cases Grigson had testified, but only to question the so-called psychiatric
conclusion that defendants would commit further violence unless executed.
But five months after Morris arrived in Dallas, David Harris tried to kidnap a young woman in Beaumont, Texas. During the abduction attempt, Harris exchanged gunfire with the woman's's boyfriend, Mark Mays. Mays was shot to death and Harris wounded. For the Mays murder Harris was sentenced to death. In the years since the Adams trial David Harris had added to his extensive criminal record a series of burglaries, armed robberies and kidnappings - even spending time at Fort Leavenworth.
Errol Morris changed the focus of his documentary from Dr. Grigson, to the case against Randall Dale Adams. Morris interviewed the witnesses, uncovering the facts that impugned their testimony. Morris created an award-winning documentary - The Thin Blue Line. The information Morris gathered gave Adams' lawyers enough ammunition to file a motion for a new trial and at that new trial hearing David Harris, now on death row himself, 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. - David Harris
Harris admitted that he alone committed the murder and that Adams had nothing to do with it.
On December 2, 1988, Dallas District Court Judge Larry Baraka recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Adams be granted a new trial. On January 30, 1989, the judge wrote a letter to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommending that Adams be paroled immediately. The board refused the request, 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 - March 23, 1989 - Dallas District Attorney John Vance dropped the charges.
My mother always said that the Man Upstairs was testing me. I hope He's done now. -- Randall Dale Adams
Randall Dale Adams spent 12 years in prison - several on death row - for a crime he didn't commit. He never received monetary compensation from the State of Texas, nor even an apology. Since his release he has become an active and passionate advocate against the death penalty as a featured speaker across America and overseas. He has testified before Congress, spoken on behalf of many death row inmates, and authored a book - Adams v. Texas. He has had no further arrests since his release.