Randall Dale Adams in 2001 Calling for a Moratorium on
Executions in Texas

On June 22, we blogged about the death of Texas death row exoneree Randall Dale Adams. Randall will be missed. He was someone who could bear personal witness about the injustice of the Texas death penalty. The power of his voice was evident in 2001 when he testified to a committee in the Texas Legislature for a moratorium bill, helping to convince the committee to vote in favor of stopping executions and studying the system.

The news of Randall’s death was picked up by the AP, which said:

Adams did such a good job of disappearing that his Oct. 30 death from a brain tumor didn’t become widely known until Friday, when it was reported by the Dallas Morning News. (His former attorney) Randy Schaffer confirmed his former client’s death after speaking to his family. Adams was 61.”

Now, the New York Times has a long story about Randall, who died in October 2010. Condolences, memories and tributes can be left here.

June 25, 2011

Randall Adams, 61, Dies; Freed With Help of Film

Randall Dale Adams, who spent 12 years in prison before his conviction in the murder of a Dallas police officer was thrown out largely on the basis of evidence uncovered by a filmmaker, died in obscurity in October in Washington Court House, Ohio. He was 61.
Mr. Adams had chosen to live a quiet life divorced from his past, and when he died on Oct. 30, 2010, of a brain tumor, the death was reported only locally, said his lawyer, Randy Schaffer. The death was first widely reported on Friday.
The film that proved so crucial to Mr. Adams was “The Thin Blue Line,” directed by Errol Morris and released in 1988. It told a harrowing story, and it had the effect of helping to bring about Mr. Adams’s release the following year.
“We’re not talking about a cop killer who’s getting out on a technicality,” Mr. Morris said when Mr. Adams was set free. “We’re talking about an unbelievable nightmare.”
The story began on Nov. 27, 1976. Mr. Adams was walking along a Dallas street after his car had run out of gas when a teenager, David Ray Harris, came by in a stolen car and offered him a ride. The two spent the day drinking, smoking marijuana and going to a drive-in movie.
Shortly after midnight, a Dallas police officer, Robert Wood, stopped a car for a traffic violation and was shot and killed. The investigation led to Mr. Harris, who accused Mr. Adams of the murder. Other witnesses corroborated his testimony, and Mr. Adams was convicted in 1977.
Sentenced to die by lethal injection, Mr. Adams appealed the verdict, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to overturn it. His execution was scheduled for May 8, 1979.
Three days before the execution, the United States Supreme Court ordered a stay on the grounds that prospective jurors who had been uneasy about the death penalty were excluded during jury selection even though they had clearly said they would follow Texas law.
Gov. Bill Clements went on to commute Mr. Adams’s sentence to life in prison. With the death penalty no longer an issue, the Texas appeals court ruled there was “now no error in the case.”
In March 1985, Mr. Morris arrived in Dallas to work on a documentary about a psychiatrist whose testimony in death penalty cases was controversial. The psychiatrist contended that he could predict future criminal behavior, something the American Psychiatric Association had said was impossible.
In Dallas, Mr. Morris met Mr. Schaffer, who had been working on the case since 1982. The two began piecing together a puzzle that pointed to Mr. Harris’s guilt in the police shooting. Mr. Harris had by then accumulated a long criminal record and was on death row for an unrelated murder.
Mr. Morris and Mr. Schaffer knew from the records that Mr. Harris had bragged about killing a police officer after the shooting but had then recanted and blamed Mr. Adams, and that the pistol used in the killing had been stolen from his father.
Their own investigation revealed that three witnesses had been improperly sprung on the defense and that they had committed perjury in their testimony. Moreover, a statement that Mr. Adams signed during an interrogation was misconstrued as an admission that he had been at the scene of the crime.
With so much evidence seeming to suggest Mr. Harris’s guilt, many Texans believed prosecutors had gone after Mr. Adams and not Mr. Harris because Mr. Harris, who was 16, was too young to be executed under Texas law. In the murder of a police officer, the theory went, prosecutors almost always seek the most severe punishment.
Mr. Schaffer said Mr. Morris gained access to witnesses and others related to the case. “They forgot the script they learned for the trial,” he said. “They told the truth.”
After the movie came out in 1988, the resulting outcry prompted a judge to grant another hearing, something Mr. Schaffer had not been able to accomplish. Mr. Harris recanted his previous testimony, without confessing. In 2004, Mr. Harris was executed for the other murder.
In March 1989, the Texas appeals court ruled Mr. Adams was entitled to a new trial because of the perjured testimony. Three weeks later, he was released on his own recognizance, and two days after that the Dallas district attorney dropped all charges.
Mr. Adams lived a peripatetic life afterward, first returning to his native Ohio, then moving to upstate New York, later returning to Texas, in the Houston area, and finally settling again in Ohio. Mr. Schaffer said Mr. Adams gave speeches against the death penalty and married the sister of a man on death row. He did not know if they were still married at his death.
Mr. Adams’s mother died in December, and he is survived by at least one sister, Mr. Schaffer said.
Mr. Morris went on to make, among other films, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (2003), which won an Academy Award.
Mr. Schaffer said that if Mr. Adams were found to be wrongly convicted under today’s law in Texas, he would get $80,000 for each year of incarceration. At the time his conviction was thrown out, wrongly convicted prisoners could get a lump sum payment of $25,000 if pardoned by the governor. But Mr. Adams was ineligible for the money. He had not been pardoned; his case had been dismissed.
He also did not receive the $200 given to prisoners when they are released on parole or on the completion of their sentences, Mr. Schaffer said. Again, Mr. Adams did not qualify.

In 2001, Randall Dale Adams testified to a committees in the Texas House and Senate and told his story of how he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to Texas death row. His testimony helped convince the committees to vote in favor of a moratorium on executions. Later in 2001, 53 members of the Texas House voted for a moratorium on the floor of the Texas House in a bill filed by Rep Harold Dutton.

This year in 2011, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence again considered a bill for a moratorium on executions, but the committee took no action on the bill. Maybe if the committee members had been able to hear from Randall Adams they would have voted for a moratorium.

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