AN AMERICAN VIEW

Why did Randall Adams almost die?

Most defendants convicted of capital crimes have done what the prosecution claims. But the state can also be wrong—dead wrong

FRED BRUNING March 27 1989
AN AMERICAN VIEW

Why did Randall Adams almost die?

Most defendants convicted of capital crimes have done what the prosecution claims. But the state can also be wrong—dead wrong

FRED BRUNING March 27 1989

Why did Randall Adams almost die?

AN AMERICAN VIEW

Most defendants convicted of capital crimes have done what the prosecution claims. But the state can also be wrong—dead wrong

FRED BRUNING

In 1979, Randall Dale Adams came within three days of being strapped to a gurney and executed by lethal injection. He was deemed guilty as charged in the 1976 shooting death of a Dallas police officer, and the state of Texas was determined to even the score. Only a favorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a technical issue involving jury selection saved Adams from oblivion and Texas from exquisite ignominy. As should have been clear from the outset, the good people of the Lone Star state were hell-bent on pumping poison into the wrong man—a cautionary tale in these days when the public clamors for more executions and politicians scramble to please their rasping constituents.

Following the Supreme Court decision, District Attorney Henry Wade vowed his office would try the case again so that Adams got his due. Wade never made good on his public promises, however, opting instead to ask the governor to commute Adams’s sentence to a life term. Humanitarian concerns do not appear to have prompted the turnabout, except insofar as they pertained to Henry Wade and the maintenance of his career. If Adams was put away for life, there would not be another trial with its attendant risks of acquittal and embarrassment. The last thing the prosecution wanted was to lose a case already won.

Except for defence lawyers, nobody worried much about Randall Adams until 1985 when a documentary film-maker by the name of Errol Morris started asking questions. Once a graduate student in philosophy and later a Wall Street fraud investigator, Morris was not disposed to easy answers nor, generally, to the proposition that it is best to leave well enough alone. He had come to Texas to research a story about James Grigson, a psychiatrist whose expert testimony often was sought by authorities preparing capital cases. Juries found Grigson so persuasive, in fact, that he became known as “Dr. Death,” and, as Morris

learned, Randall Adams was one of his trophies. The moviemaker listened to Adams’s story and promptly overhauled his plans.

Morris dedicated himself to the Adams case and quickly became convinced that the official record amounted to “a rat’s nest of prosecutorial error and misconduct.” He found discrepancies between statements initially provided by witnesses and testimony they gave during the trial. Evidence had been suppressed, and Wade’s office far too willingly believed the story of the other central figure in the murder investigation, a 16-year-old runaway from Vidor, Tex., named David Ray Harris.

Prior to the shooting of officer Robert Woods on Nov. 28, 1976, Harris, driving a stolen car, had picked up Adams, a newcomer to Dallas whose auto had run out of gas. The two spent several hours drinking beer and smoking pot before heading to a drive-in featuring soft-core entertainment. These were not activities apt to win Adams a nomination as role model of the year, but stupidity is one thing, and murder another. After the movies, Adams said, Harris gave him a lift to his motel and the two parted ways.

Upon returning to Vidor, Harris bragged to friends that he had “offed a pig in Dallas” and

asked buddies to hide the pistol that later was proven to be the murder weapon. Subsequently, police collared Harris, whom they knew from previous scrapes, but the teenager now claimed Adams had pulled the trigger. At the time, Adams was 28—old enough to be executed. Harris was considered a youthful offender and, as such, not eligible for the state’s terminal hypodermic. Errol Morris feels certain the distinction was well noted at the prosecutor’s office—that, in fact, authorities were eager to convict someone who could pay the ultimate price for Woods’s death.

The prosecutor’s curious tactics are exposed in The Thin Blue Line, a feature-length documentary released by Morris last August and seen by half a million moviegoers in 30 cities. Onscreen, three of the state’s witnesses cast doubt on their own testimony and David Harris all but confesses that he, not Adams, killed officer Woods—a statement Harris made even more emphatically in a court appearance late last year. To say the least, Harris, now 28, has considerable credibility when discussing his own capacity for mayhem. Since the Woods shooting, he has served time in army jails and in San Quentin and now awaits execution for a brutal murder he committed four years ago in Beaumont, Tex.

Although the Texas Supreme Court recently overturned the conviction of Randall Adams, prosecutors insist they acted ethically and, indeed, Adams remains in jail while authorities debate retrying the case. Disclaimers aside, the Adams episode marks the second time in five years that Dallas has gained national attention for the peculiar quality of local justice. In 1984, a black engineer convicted as an armed robber and sentenced to life in prison was set free after the 60 Minutes television program raised troubling questions. In the view of Randy Schaffer, who represented Adams on appeal, Dallas prosecutors often allowed “the ends to justify the means” when building their cases. “And if it comes to rewriting the script to fit the story, then you rewrite the script.”

Rewrite the script? What a swell idea, unless, of course, you happen to be someone like Randall Adams who finds that the state’s revisions include a death scene and that you are prominently featured. Capital punishment allows little margin for error, guile or poor judgment. Once the switch has been pulled or the shots fired or the noose pulled tight or the needle plunged into the arm of the condemned, that, to continue the metaphor, is all she wrote.

It almost certainly is true that most defendants convicted of capital crimes have done exactly what the prosecution claims. As the Adams case illustrates, it is also true that the state can be wrong—dead wrong. Nothing is perfect, however, and Americans like the idea of capital punishment, despite its limitations. So does President Bush, who came to Manhattan the other day and supported a move to reinstate the death penalty in New York state. He put in a word for the federal law, too. “I want to see it swiftly and firmly, fairly enacted,” said the chief executive. Swift and firm might be arranged, Mr. President. Fair sometimes gets a little tricky.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.