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,” he says. “I wanted to pick up where I’d left off, but I realized pretty quick that I was kidding myself.”
Adams’ ordeal began on November 27, 1976, when he ran out of gas and hitched a ride with sixteen-year-old David Harris. Harris dropped Adams off around ten o’clock that night, and Adams figured he had seen the last of the strange kid who had liked showing off his .22-caliber pistol. Less than three hours later, Dallas police officer Robert Wood was dead. When later questioned by the police, Harris claimed that Adams was still in the Mercury Comet when Officer Wood pulled it over after midnight, and that Adams had fired the gun. Adams was charged with killing Officer Wood, and Harris was the key witness against him. Harris had an extensive criminal record and a motive for shooting a police officer: He had been driving a stolen car while on probation. He had even bragged to friends in his hometown of Vidor that he had blown away “a pig in Dallas.” Still, the Dallas police chose to believe his story over Adams’ alibi, which was apparently too simple: Adams said he had gone home and gone to bed.
Years later, in The Thin Blue Line, Harris would recant the story he had told detectives and concede that Adams was home at the time of the shooting. But back in 1976, the Dallas police were under pressure to solve the high-profile killing and intent on making the charges against Adams Adams stick. Adams alleges that the lead detective in the case, Gus Rose, pointed a gun at his head during one interrogation. And when an eyewitness to the shooting could not pick Adams out of a lineup, a police officer helpfully pointed him out to her. (Thus enlightened, she later fingered Adams at his trial.) The case was tried in 1977 by assistant district attorney Doug Mulder, who had never lost a capital case. Mulder wanted to win at any cost and was later reprimanded by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for prosecutorial misconduct during Adams’ trial that included “suppressing evidence favorable to the accused, deceiving the trial court … and knowingly using perjured testimony.” Adams was sentenced to death.”If not for my mother and my family, I probably would have committed suicide,” Adams says. “But I knew that killing myself would kill my mother. I had to make peace with my situation and believe that someday I would be proven innocent.” After the Court of Criminal Appeals initially upheld his guilty verdict 9-0 in 1979, he was given a “short-timer’s calendar,” with pages he could tear out for each of the last thirty days of his life. Adams would have been executed had the U.S. Supreme Court not stayed his execution three days before he was scheduled to die. The next year the court overturned his sentence—on a technicality relating to how Texas juries were selected in capital cases. Although the decision entitled Adams to a new trial, the Dallas district attorney’s office persuaded Governor Bill Clements to commute Adams’ sentence to life in prison instead. (With the death sentence removed, the Supreme Court’s objection was rendered moot.) The DA avoided a trial that no doubt would have exposed the weakness of the state’s case—and Adams prepared to live out his days in a six- by nine-foot concrete prison cell.
Adams was released in 1989. Based on new evidence presented by appellate lawyer Randy Schaffer, who had worked on Adams’ behalf pro bono for years, a state district judge had ruled that Adams was indeed entitled to a new trial. The DA’s office, however, declined to try him again and dismissed all charges against him. “If not for Randy, I’d be dead right now,” says Adams. Having last seen the outside world in 1976, he remembers being startled by the changed landscape when Schaffer took him to dinner his first night as a free man. “Everything was different,” he says. “I’m still catching up.”
Adams returned home to Ohio, where he found the media’s fascination with his story strangely therapeutic. “I couldn’t go to the bathroom without a reporter trying to follow me in,” he recalls. “There was mass hysteria, which was good, because it didn’t give me time to think.” He testified before Congress, did the lecture circuit, and went on a book tour for his memoir, Adams v. Texas, that took him back to Dallas. For the occasion he wore an outfit his mother had bought for him a dozen years earlier: his burial suit.
By the mid-nineties Adams was burned out. He dropped out of sight, working in a saw blade factory outside Columbus and refusing all interviews. “I wanted to be Randy Adams again, not Randall Dale Adams,” he says. But after a brief marriage and several years of trying to ignore the past, he came to the realization that he had a duty to tell his story. At the urging of his friend Bill Pelke, who was organizing anti-death-penalty demonstrations around the country, Adams assumed a more public role. Despite his antipathy for Texas, he agreed in 1998 to take part in statewide demonstrations, where he met his current wife, Jill. “I don’t believe in coincidence,” says Adams. “I think we met so I would move here and do the work that needs to be done. Texas would love nothing more than for me to shut up about what happened, but I’m going to keep talking.” Three weeks after meeting Jill, he packed up his car and drove to Houston. “I thought, ‘To hell with the people who did this to me. I’m baaack!’”
Adams has become a passionate advocate for a moratorium on the death penalty, speaking most recently to the Texas Legislature this spring. “The man you see before you is here by the grace of God,” he told a hushed room. “The fact that it took twelve and a half years and a movie to prove my innocence should scare the hell out of everyone in this room, and if it doesn’t, then that scares the hell out of me.” Adams says he holds no grudge against David Harris, who currently sits on death row for killing a man in Beaumont. “In the beginning, I blamed David,” he says. “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.”
Adams has never received a formal apology from the State of Texas or any monetary compensation for twelve years lost. So why isn’t he consumed with bitterness? “I don’t like that word, ‘bitterness,’” he says. “I’m just glad to be alive.”