UPDATE: Randall Dale Adams, 61, died of a brain tumor in obscurity in Ohio last October, but his death was reported only last week. “Before people had ever heard of Anthony Graves, Clarence Brandley or Kerry Max Cook, there was Randall Dale Adams,” Pamela Colloff told the San Antonio Express-News after news of his death broke. “Today, in large part because of the recent DNA exonerations, I think most people accept the idea that an innocent person can actually be convicted. But Adams’ case came along before that shift in public thinking, when it was difficult for most people to believe that the state could make that egregious of an error, not only convicting an innocent man but sentencing him to death. Adams’ story helped show people that this was actually possible.”—June 28, 2011.
Former death row innmate Randall Dale Adams is sitting in an empty Houston sports bar, looking very much alive and well and dragging on a Winston. His face has filled out since his prison days, though his stoic expression remains unchanged: He managed to survive these past 25 years by steeling himself for the worst. Adams had committed no crime when he was sentenced to die for the 1976 slaying of a Dallas police officer, but it wasn’t until the 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line made Adams’ case a cause célèbre that his conviction was overturned. Having once come within three days of being executed, the 52-year-old is still trying to make sense of it all. “My mother always said that the Man Upstairs was testing me,” he says, pointing his beer bottle heavenward. “I hope He’s done now.”
The last time most people caught a glimpse of Randall Dale Adams was in 1989, when he walked out of the Dallas County jail a free man, wearing borrowed clothes and a wary smile for the news cameras. What happened next was not initially the stuff of happy endings. First there was his quarrel with Errol Morris, the maker of The Thin Blue Line, over the rights to his life story—a matter that was settled out of court in 1991 but left the two estranged. Then in 1994 Adams’ brother Ron died while in the Dallas County jail, where he had been detained for driving under the influence. (The official cause of death was a heart attack.) And then there was Adams’ own struggle to resume a normal life after prison. “I was forty years old and I had no clothes, no money, no car, and I was living in my mother’s spare bedroom,”