The Longest Ride of His Life
One day Randall Adams hitched a ride with a young man named David Harris. Six months later, Adams was on death row for killing a cop—with Harris’ gun, in Harris’ car—and Harris was the key witness against him.
It has been almost eleven years since that bitter-cold November night when Dallas police officer Robert Wood was gunned down by the driver of a car he had stopped for a minor traffic violation. The murder case has been to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it may be headed there again. Eleven years after the shooting, the case still rustles the memory and haunts the conscience of Dallas.
The only one who got a good look at the killer was Robert Wood, and for all practical purposes Wood was dead before he hit the ground. For several days the police searched for the wrong make of car, and for several weeks they assumed that the killer was Hispanic or black. The intensity of the investigation and its strange twists and quirks attracted considerable media coverage and aroused the city of Dallas to unaccustomed passion. By the time a legitimate suspect was arrested a few days before Christmas, 1976—nearly three weeks after the shooting—Wood’s murder had become the longest and certainly the most embarrassing unsolved cop killing in the city’s history. When a jury returned the death penalty the following May, there was a genuine feeling of exhilaration within the law enforcement fraternity, a belief that the painful affair had finally been put to rest.
But it hadn’t. The case continues to haunt the conscience of Dallas for the very good reason that Dallas may have convicted the wrong man. Some top-notch lawyers who have reviewed the evidence are convinced that Adams is innocent, and so is a critically acclaimed filmmaker. Those people have discovered new evidence, and more important, they have uncovered dramatic insights into the old evidence. At stake is more than the life of one man. The stake is justice.
The four-day Thanksgiving weekend was winding down that frigid Saturday night in 1976. Shortly after midnight, Officer Robert Wood and his partner had stopped at the drive-in window of a Burger King on Hampton Road, which runs along the river bottom just west of down-town, through a high-crime district of warehouses and dreary housing projects. Wood’s partner was Teresa Turko, one of the first females ever assigned to street patrol. She had been on the force for only about a year and, like the other women assigned to the dangerous job of patrolling the streets, was under unusual scrutiny and pressure to perform. Wood and Turko were being served coffee and a milk shake when they spotted a dirty blue compact car traveling near the Hampton Road viaduct with only its parking lights on.
A less conscientious cop might have stayed put and finished his coffee, but Wood flashed his red lights and gave chase. When he climbed out of his patrol car and walked toward the blue car, Wood apparently intended just to warn the driver; he left his ticket book on the seat. The standard procedure was to radio the vehicle’s description and license number to the dispatcher, but most two-officer patrols ignored the procedure, and Wood ignored it too. It was also standard procedure for the second officer to stand at the right rear fender of the stopped vehicle, but investigators concluded later that Turko either stayed in the patrol car or at best stood beside its open door, drinking her milk shake. When Wood was shot, Turko dropped her milk shake and managed to fire several shots as the killer sped away. She immediately radioed for help, and within five minutes another unit was on the scene and others were on the way. But the killer’s car had disappeared.
Badly shaken, Turko could supply only a skimpy description. The killer drove a blue Vega, she thought. She had gotten just a glimpse of the back of his head—he wore a heavy coat with the collar turned up, and his hair was dark and medium-length. She saw only one person in the car, and she couldn’t tell if he was black or white. For several days her description was all the police had.
That night and most of the following day, the investigation centered on Turko. She was taken to headquarters, stripped of her gun and identification, and placed in a tiny room that was used to interrogate prisoners. Sergeant Gus Rose, probably the best detective on the force, questioned Turko repeatedly, once for four solid hours; still, she was unable to supply additional information. Wood had been the second cop in less than a month to fall victim to a wanton and seemingly random shooting, and the fear, anger and frustration that pervaded the ranks gave the new affair the irrational quality of a witch-hunt. Though an internal affairs investigation eventually concluded that Turko had done the best she could have under the circumstances, the consensus among senior officers was that the one cop who could have prevented Wood’s death—or at least apprehended his killer—had failed her baptism of fire. Even so, the way Turko was badgered made a lot of cops uncomfortable. She was relieved of patrol duty until the completion of the investigation. She agreed to take a lie detector test, but the results were inconclusive. She also agreed to undergo hypnosis, and an expert was flown in from California.
“They treated her like a common criminal,” recalled Dale Holt, one of the internal affairs investigators. “Gus Rose was one of the finest detectives I ever knew, but, frankly, I got into it with him over how they were treating Turko.”
Five days after the shooting, the police got their first break. A woman waiting at a stoplight next to an off-duty cop rolled down her window and volunteered the information that the police were looking for the wrong make of car. “The newspapers said it was a Vega,” she said, “but it was a Ford product”—a Mercury Comet, as it later turned out. The surprise witness was Emily Miller, a 36-year-old white woman married to a black man, a self-described “nosy type” who happened to be driving down Hampton Road with her husband, Robert, at around 12:40, the moment Officer Robert Wood was confronting his killer. Both of the Millers recognized Wood, who had befriended the family when Mrs. Miller’s daughter was caught driving without a license. Emily Miller said that even though it was dark and the Millers’ car was traveling in the opposite direction on the four-lane road, she took a hard look at the driver because she thought he might be her son-in-law. Her son-in-law, who was Hispanic, drove a similar car and wore his hair in an Afro, the same as the man in the driver’s seat. She described the driver as “a Mexican or a light-skinned black.” Robert Miller didn’t give a statement until nearly five months later, after jury selection began. Any man who would kill a cop, Miller warned his wife, would not hesitate to kill a witness.
Despite Emily Miller’s eyewitness account of the crime, the investigation stalled. A $10,000 reward offered by an association of concerned citizens was bumped to $20,000, then to $25,000, and the police let it be known that information in the case could buy an extraordinary measure of what one detective called goodwill. Then, a week before Christmas there was a development so dramatic that within three days Dallas had its killer—or at least it had the man that it still maintains is the killed. The break came in Vidor, a small town near Beaumont, where the police arrested a young hoodlum named David Ray Harris. The sixteen-year-old had been bragging to friends that he had blown away “a pig in Dallas.” Harris, who was already on juvenile probation, admitted that he had burglarized a home, stolen a car—a blue Mercury Comet—and driven to Dallas the day after Thanksgiving to dispose of his loot. Part of the loot was a .22 pistol, which turned out to be the gun that had killed Robert Wood. Harris still had the gun when he returned to Vidor the day after the murder. He gave it to a friend, then borrowed a rifle, which he used to rob a convenience store. Harris freely admitted to the burglaries and the robbery but said he had lied about killed the cop. He proposed a deal: if the Vidor police would drop all charges, he would tell them who had really killed the cop in Dallas.
Elated by the sudden break, Sergeant Gus Rose hurried to Vidor to interrogate Davis Harris. If one takes into account Harris’ record, his boasts about killing a Dallas cop, and the fact that he had the car and the murder weapon, the story Harris told seems childishly farfetched. One the day of the murder, Harris said, he picked up a hitchhiker named Dale, who helped him pawn some stolen tools. They spent the afternoon together, drinking beer and smoking pot, and that night as they returned to Dale’s motel from a drive-in movie, they were stopped by a patrol car. Dale was driving, Harris said, and when the cop approached the car window, Dale grabbed the pistol from under the front seat and pumped five slugs into the startled officer. Harris remembered being told, “Forget what you saw.” The mysterious Dale did not fit Emily Miller’s description, he wasn’t black or Hispanic. He had bushy, shoulder-length hair, Harris remembered, and a Zapata-like moustache. That was close enough.
Since Dale had signed his name on the pawnshop receipts, locating him was routine. The following day Dallas authorities issued a warrant for the arrest of Randall Dale Adams on a charge of capital murder. The 28-year-old construction worker was picked up at Forest Hills Pallet Company, near the abandoned air terminal that used to be called Amon Carter Field. Thanks almost entirely to the testimony of David Harris, Officer Teresa Turko, Robert and Emily Miller, and another witness who had driven by the murder scene, Adams was convicted four months later and sentenced to die.
A Quirk of Fate
Nothing in Randall Dale Adams’ unremarkable life suggested that he was a candidate for death row. He grew up in a good blue-collar home in Columbus, Ohio, and his only brush with the law was a DWI conviction as a teenager, for which he paid a fine of $100. His father, a coal miner in West Virginia before the family moved to Ohio, worked the last ten years of his life for a grocery chain. Randall’s mother raised five children, and when her husband died, she went back to school and got a degree in nursing. Family life was typically middle-American, two cars, a large home, a membership in the Brown Road Community Church in Columbus. Randall played sports in high school and always had some kind of job but never a trade. Basically honest and sincere, Randall wasn’t driven by personal ambition. “Clever” was not a word that would come to mind in describing Randall Dale Adams. On his employment application for the construction job in Dallas, Randall listed his nonreligious activities as “dogs, football, basketball, women.”
That Adams was in Dallas at all was a quirk of fate. Two months earlier, Randall and his older brother had left Columbus with the idea of heading for California and warm weather. Randall had done a hitch with the 82nd Airborne from 1969 to 1972 and developed problems with his knees, finally diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis. Cold climates became unbearable; he had been almost bedridden the previous winter.
Randall and his brother had several hundred dollars between them when they arrived in Dallas in early October. They had intended to stay only a few days, but Randall found a construction job the next morning, then Ray found work, and after a few weeks Dallas started to feel like home. The room they rented at one of the drab little motels tucked among the used car lots and fast-food joints on Fort Worth Avenue was warm, with a bed, a roll-away, a TV set, and a tiny kitchen. By Thanksgiving the two brothers and another construction worker were making plans to rent an apartment in Fort Worth. Randall did piecework, constructing wooden pallets, and worked six days a week by choice. When he drew his pay the day before Thanksgiving, the foreman told him that Friday was a holiday but work on Saturday was optional.
Randall Adams’ fate was sealed before daylight that cold Saturday morning when he woke at the usual time, dressed, and drove to work. The foreman apparently had changed his mind: there was no one else at the jobsite. Adams waited about 45 minutes, then drove back to town. Having paid another week’s rent at the motel, he was short of cash. His car was almost out of gas, and he decided to pawn his stereo speakers and a box of cassettes at a pawn shop on Fort Worth Avenue. Unwilling to accept the pawnbroker’s offer, Adams walked back to his car and had just pulled away from the curb when the car ran out of gas. He walked about a quarter mile to a service station, carrying a plastic jug, but the attendant told him it wasn’t legal to put gasoline in plastic jugs. Adams stood there in the cold, weighing his options. At that moment a blue Mercury Comet pulled up, and a pleasant young man wearing a heavy coat with its fur collar turned up offered Adams a ride. It would turn out to be the longest ride of Adams’ life.
At first , David Ray Harris seemed likable enough. He was bring and personable, traits that Adams admired but didn’t possess. Harris had just come from Houston, he said, and was looking for work—clothing and other items were piled on the back seat, including some tools, a rifle, and a pistol. Harris never mentioned that the goods were stolen, but he did ask Adams to help pawn them. Adams agreed to pawn the tools but not the guns; his father hadn’t allowed them around the house.
With one spectacular exception, Adams’ memory of what happened that day corresponds with the story Harris told the police. They visited at least four pawnshops before agreeing to a broker’s price for Harris’ tools and Adams’ stereo equipment, and then they drove out Texas Highway 183 to Adams’ jobsite—Adams thought his boss might give Harris a job—but there was still no sign that anyone was working. They drove around, drinking beer and sharing a joint: Adams did most of the driving, partly because he didn’t trust Harris at the wheel. At one point, Harris unexpectedly fired the pistol at a stop sign. Adams yelled for Harris to put the damn gun under the seat, and that’s where it remained until Robert Wood’s murder. As they were bumming around a shopping mall in Irving, Adams began to reevaluate his new friend. “He started acting crazy,” Adams recalls, “lifting up girls’ skirts, pinching them, yelling. He was acting like a kid, a youngster. It made me uncomfortable.”
It was dark when they left the shopping mall. Both Adams and Harris remember that they sat through part of a soft-porn double feature at an Irving drive-in theater. Neither remembers the exact time they entered or left, though they agree that they left during the second feature, The Student Body. It is at this point that the two men’s stories don’t match up. Adams recalls driving back to the motel without incident, taking the Inwood exit off Highway 183 and crossing the Hampton Road viaduct to Fort Worth Avenue. Harris says they made one stop along the way, at which time Adams cold-bloodedly murdered Robert Wood.
Both men recall that when they arrived at the motel, Harris asked if he could crash there for the night. Adams refused. Locked away now in a wire cage on death row, Adams has passed countless dark hours speculating about how different the future would have been if only he had said yes: if Harris had spent the night in Adams’ motel room, Adams believes, Harris wouldn’t have been out on the road at 12:40. And Wood would be alive today.
One of the first things Sergeant Gus Rose did after he interrogated David Harris was arrange for a lie detector test. Harris passed. Adams failed a similar test a few weeks later. To this day Gus Rose is convinced that David Harris told the truth and that Randall Adams killed Wood. Hardened in his memory is a clear portrait of this grown man, this drifter “showing off for the kid.” First, Adams helped the kid dispose of his loot, then plied him with beer and marijuana and treated him to an X-rated movie. And in the final act of absolute depravity he grabbed the kid’s gun and killed a cop. “The timing and the sequence of events is exactly right for Adams to have left the drive-in, gotten to the river bottom, and killed Officer Wood,” Rose said. “Adams admits he was driving the car. There is no conflict in the sequence of events, except that Adams claimed to have conveniently blacked out at the moment Wood was killed.”
There is nothing in Adams’ statement or in any of the police reports about Adams’ “blacking out,” but Rose says he is sure that Adams used that term during interrogation. Rose, who retired from the police department in 1981 and is now the chief deputy constable of Precinct 3 in Garland, told me: “I worked more than two thousand murder cases during my twenty-one years in homicide, and I’m telling you it’s not unusual for a suspect to remember every detail of a murder except the most important part.”
The Man with Bushy Hair
On its face, the case that the Dallas police turned over to the district attorney’s office was badly flawed. It depended primarily on the jury’s believing David Ray Harris, hardly a model witness, and on the testimony of Officer Teresa Turko, who had been wrong about the make of the car and had initially said that its single occupant had dark medium-length hair and wore a heavy jacket with the collar turned up—not a bad description of David Harris. Harris and Turko were the only major witnesses on the list that chief prosecutor Doug Mulder tendered to the defense. On the other hand, Adams’ attorney, Dennis White, had at least three—and maybe as many as half a dozen—witnesses who had heard Harris brag about killing a Dallas cop.
But most lawyers who had gone up against Mulder knew from bitter experience that this was the perfect situation for an ambush. In his twelve years as the chief prosecutor for district attorney Henry Wade, Doug Mulder never lost a capital murder case, and he sent maybe two dozen men to death row. That his unblemished record would have been broken by a cop killer seemed unthinkable.
Doug Mulder had the personality, the flinty eyes, and the exquisite vanity of a Marine drill instructor, a man of infinite patience and self-esteem who would as soon starve out an enemy as snap his spinal column. His machetelike tongue would carve up an opponent with a minimum of bloodletting. Nobody could analyze a situation or read a jury or know exactly when and where to frame a point of law better than Doug Mulder. Mel Bruder, one of Dallas’ best appellate lawyers—and the man who would later argue Adams’ case before the Supreme Court—said of Mulder, “He is one of the finest pure prosecutors I ever saw. He is thorough, he is heartless, and once the objective is made known to him, he pursues it at all costs.” The objective here, of course, was to send Randall Adams to his executioner.
Dennis White, the attorney Adams’ mother hired to save her son’s life, was almost organically mismatched for Mulder’s kind of combat. White had taken a degree in economics at Harvard before returning to his hometown of Dallas to study law at Southern Methoidst University. A classmate of Doug Mulder’s, he graduated in 1964 and, like many young Dallas attorneys, served a short apprenticeship as one of Henry Wade’s prosecutors. White didn’t claim to have Mulder’s passion for infighting. He was a gentle man, courtly almost, intellectually and emotionally inclined to see the best in people. Though he had been in private practice for nearly ten years, his experience in criminal cases was limited and spectacularly without distinction. In the only other major case in which White had gone head-to-head with Mulder (in the Mandy Dealey kidnap case), his client had received 5005 years.
Mulder quickly established his domination in the case against Randall Adams. He won the first battle (and maybe the war) in the pretrial, when he convinced Judge Don Metcalfe that Harris’ past and present criminal record should be kept from the jury. Dennis White was stunned by the ruling; Harris’ well-documented criminal background all but destroyed his credibility as a witness, but in a single stroke Mulder had neutralized it. White was certain that a deal had been made with Harris, but unless he could get across to the jury that Harris faced robbery and burglary charges and a probation revocation, there was no way the jury would understand how much Harris had to gain by testifying for the state. Nor would the jury comprehend that Harris’ braggings about killing a cop were more than ego bursts from an excitable teenager—that they were more likely the remarks of a young man well on his way to becoming a career criminal. White correctly cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Alaska, which determined that a juvenile’s criminal record can be admitted as evidence if it is needed to demonstrate “bias and motive.” But in framing his motion for the court, White failed to use those specific words—“bias and motive.” On that technicality, Judge Metcalfe ruled against the defense. It was a narrow interpretation, but it was later upheld by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Mulder couldn’t have asked for a better judge than Don Metcalfe, a longtime acquaintance and admirer of the chief prosecutor’s. A deacon in the First Baptists Church and a trustee of the Criswell Bible Institute, Metcalfe was conservative and pro-prosecution. He was a stickler for the letter of the law, an area in which Mulder excelled—and that Dennis White tended to overlook. Metcalfe approved Dennis White’s pretrial motion that Mulder be required to turn over any documents favorable to Adams or inconsistent with the state’s theory of guilt. But when Mulder failed to produce just such a document late in the trial, the judge let it slide.
White also neglected to ask if any of the state’s witnesses had undergone hypnosis, although, in fairness to White, no one could recall a case in Dallas in which hypnosis had been used. Strict procedural safeguards are adhered to when witnesses have been hypnotized, but White didn’t think to request them, and Mulder, of course, didn’t remind him. Mulder says that he didn’t know about Turko’s hypnosis either. He did know about the police department’s internal affairs investigation of Turko—and he knew that a few weeks after the killing, a report sent to the chief of police suggested that Turko had been coached to provide information that fit the investigators’ scenario. Mulder didn’t conceal that from his adversary, but he persuaded the judge to keep it from the jury.
Turko told the jury that she was standing at the right rear fender of the killer’s car when her partner was gunned down. Then she added a startling piece of evidence that, as far as the police records show, she had never revealed to anyone and that was inconsistent with her earlier description—she said that the killer had bushy hair. Mulder had been harping on Adams’ bushy hair since his opening argument, and now he made sure that the jury understood its significance. David Harris was brought into the courtroom so that Turko—and the jury—could see that Harris’ medium-length dark blond hair didn’t fir Turko’s description. Though Adams had cut his hair before the trial, Turko looked at a picture of him at the time of his arrest and agreed that his hairstyle was “very similar” to that of the killer. The revelation didn’t seem all that dramatic at the moment, but as Mulder’s strategy unfolded, it became the essential plot point in the prosecution’s scenario.
When Mulder cross-examined Randall Adams, he zeroed in on the bushy hair. “You got a new hairstyle, I notice, Adams,” the prosecutor said for openers. Adams said he had gotten a haircut. “I said a new hairstyle,” Mulder snapped. He had Adams step down from the witness stand and approach the jury, and he said “It is not bushed out like it is in the photograph here, is it?”
Mulder had Adams read aloud the statement he had made to the police. Near the end of the statement, Adams said that he had driven the car from the drive-in to the motel, taking the Inwood exit off Highway 183. Then the statement concluded with this abrupt sentence: “I do not remember anything after I took a right off Inwood until I was turning left on Fort Worth Avenue.” Though disjointed and confusing, the statement said nothing about blacking out; it read less like a narrative than a response to specific questions. Nevertheless, Mulder agreed with Sergeant Gus Rose’s assessment: the statement was tantamount to a confession. Mulder glanced toward the jury as Adams read it aloud, and when the defendant got to the last sentence, the prosecutor said, “You just want everybody to kind of believe that you blacked out…that it was so horrible.” Mulder went on about Adams’ alleged blackout, how convenient and self-serving it was, and despite Adams’ denial that he ever meant to suggest a loss of memory, Mulder’s cross-examination had its intended effect on the jury.
Still, when the two sides had called all their primary witnesses, Dennis White was certain he had won his case. Mulder had apparently put all his marbles on David Harris. At least that’s what he had led White to believe. Now it was time for Mulder to spring the trap: he called his first rebuttal witness.
Detective J. W. Johnson, the officer who had arrested Adams and helped with the interrogation, told the jury how he had gone to Adams’ workplace looking for “a man with bushy hair” and how he had arrested Adams and taken him downtown. Then, like Turko, Johnson supplied a piece of information that had not appeared in any report or statement. Whereas Adams had told the jury he got back to the motel before 11 p.m., an hour and a half before Wood was killed, Johnson said that Adams admitted to him that it was closer to 1 a.m. Even if Adams had actually made such an admission—and Adams denies that he ever did—that type of oral statement during rebuttal was not admissible under Texas law. But Dennis White failed to object, and the damage was done—doubly so, since without a timely objection there was no basis for appeal. That blunder, however, paled in comparison with the way White mishandled what happened next.
Mulder had three more rebuttal witnesses—Robert and Emily Miller and a third motorist who happened to pass the scene seconds before the murder, a tall salesman named Michael Randell. Dennis White had never heard those names before. Incredible as it seems, he had no idea who those people were or what they were prepared to say. Though the judge had ordered Mulder to supply the defense with his list of primary witnesses, Mulder had not included rebuttal witnesses. Rebuttal witnesses are usually witnesses whose testimony cannot be anticipated, witnesses who become relevant only because of something that happens in the course of the trial. Three eyewitnesses to the scene of a murder hardly fit that definition. Holding key witnesses until the rebuttal stage of the trial is legal ambush, a way to prevent the opposition from learning the identity of witnesses until it is too late to prepare for them. That was a tactic Mulder had used before, and White should have known it. White could have asked for a continuance, which would have bought him a few days to investigate. But he didn’t.
All three surprise witnesses said two men were in the car and substantiated Officer Turko’s latest allegation that the driver had bushy hair. Emily Miller pointed across the room to Randall Adams without the slightest hesitation or doubt. “His hair is different, but that is the man,” she said. Robert Miller, though less impressive as a witness, was no less certain in his identification of Adams. Nor was the third witness, Michael Randell, who earlier had picked out Adams in a police lineup. Outside the presence of the jury, Emily Miller said that she too had identified Adams in a police lineup. That was a lie. Dennis White should have caught it—there was no record that either of the Millers had ever viewed a lineup—but White elected not to pursue the matter.
White’s biggest problem with Emily Miller was that he had no idea that she had made a prior statement identifying the killer as a Mexican or a light-skinned black. Despite the judge’s pretrial ruling requiring him to do so, Doug Mulder had neglected to tender that document to the defense. He simply forgot, he said later, adding that in his opinion Emily Miller’s prior statement would not have assisted the defense anyway. Dennis White did not specifically request a prior statement from Emily Miller—he assumed that wasn’t necessary. He was wrong: in affirming Adams’ conviction, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that White had failed to make a timely request for that vital piece of exculpatory evidence.
Both sides rested their cases on Friday, April 29. On Saturday, White learned of Mrs. Miller’s prior statement from a newspaper reporter. When White demanded the following Monday that the court recall Mrs. Miller, Doug Mulder said that the Millers had checked out of the Adolphus Hotel, where the state had been keeping them, and he had been told that Mrs. Miller had gone to Illinois. Mulder convinced Judge Metcalfe that it would be improper for the jury to hear the prior statement, since Mrs. Miller wasn’t available to explain the contradiction. But Mrs. Miller was available. She appeared on local television that same evening, standing in front of her room at the Alamo Plaza Hotel.
Numbed by that final setback, White watched helplessly as Metcalfe sent the case to the jury. Notes from the jury room over the next several hours demonstrated that jurors were having problems with the testimony of the rebuttal witnesses. Six of eight notes asked for clarification, and each time the judge refused. One note even asked if Mrs. Miller had made a prior statement; apparently at least one juror had read about it in the Dallas Times Herald months before the trial.
Not long after Adams was convicted and sent off to death row, Dennis White filed a lawsuit and a grievance with the Dallas Bar Association, accusing Mulder of prosecutorial misconduct; neither action got anywhere. The sad truth was, White had blown it. He had believed so strongly in his client’s innocence that he forgot his lawyerly objectivity.
Adams’ mother, Mildred, had exhausted her life savings on the trial, so the court appointed Mel Bruder to handle the appeal. In 1979 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed Adams’ conviction, 9-0. Crushed by the experience, Dennis White never accepted another major case. Eventually he phased out his law practice and got into real estate. Judge Metcalfe was defeated by a black Republican in the Reagan landslide of 1984 and is now in private practice. Doug Mulder is also in private practice. He has defended four clients in capital murder cases, and he still hasn’t lost one.
Randall Adams’ future seemed bleak even before the Court of Criminal Appeals reviewed his case, and afterward it seemed nonexistent. True, there were facts in the case that the jury never learned, but not all of them were favorable to Adams—the lie detector tests, for example. Maybe Emily Miller’s testimony was tainted, but even Dennis White had to concede that Michael Randell’s testimony was troublesome. White had driven past the murder scene at night and thought it would have been highly unlikely, if not impossible, for Randell to identify someone seated in a car. But at the time of the trial there was not a bit of evidence that Michael Randell spoke anything but the truth.
And yet White wasn’t the only one convinced that Adams was innocent. The same conclusion was reached by three other attorneys who later studied the case—Mel Bruder, his associate George Preston, and a Houston appellate lawyer named Randy Schaffer. Filmmaker Errol Morris had also investigated the case and believed that Adams was innocent. It was late in the game to look for new evidence, but there were too many inconsistencies and unanswered questions. Because of the beliefs of those four people, the search for the truth continued.
Buried beneath the impassioned grief for a slain policeman, obscured under the legal zigs and theoretical zags, was any notion of common sense. It takes a unique personality to grab a gun and shoot a cop five times. Given the two candidates, Adams and Harris, which seemed more likely? Who had a record? Who had a motive? The police and prosecutors based their investigation on the results of the lie detector tests, but the appellate lawyers and the filmmaker recognized those tests as a red herring. Normally, investigators put little or no stock in the polygraph process, unless the results fit a convenient theory. Of all the mistakes Dennis White made, allowing Adams to take a polygraph test was probably the worst, because the results gave the police the momentum they needed to go forward with their investigation.
The murder of Robert Wood struck at the heart of police work, defined its limits, arbitrated its priorities and responses. Somebody had to die for this one, and it couldn’t be David Harris; under Texas law, juveniles cannot receive the death sentence. Here was the situation the police faced: Harris was willing to say that Adams did it, and all Adams could say was that he didn’t even know a murder had taken place. In a recent interview Don Metcalfe said, “Something I’ve always wondered about this case is, why didn’t Adams just say he was in the car and that Harris did the shooting?” The possibility that Adams wasn’t even in the car at the time of the murder seems never to have occurred to the former judge.
Shortly after the trial, Dennis White learned some facts that, had he known them a few weeks sooner, might have discredited the rebuttal witnesses. Emily Miller had testified that she had just gotten off work at a Fas Gas service station when she was driving past the murder scene, but records from Fas Gas showed that she had been “terminated” fifteen days earlier, and there were shortages in her account. Two Fas Gas employees revealed that Robert Miller had admitted to them that he never saw the driver, and one of the employees heard the Millers talking about the reward money. Michael Randell had told the jury that just before he drove past the scene, he had been playing basketball at a city-owned court, but the court was closed that night. White presented that and other evidence at a hearing on his motion for retrial, but Judge Metcalfe denied the motion.
Another point that Dennis White failed to develop at the trial was that if the timing and sequence of events proved anything, they proved that Adams was telling the truth. The second feature at the drive-in movie ended at 11:49 p.m., fifty minutes before Wood was killed. Adams and Harris both remembered leaving partway through the movie. That could easily have put them back at the motel before 11 p.m. Nowhere in Adams’ statement is any mention of what time he got home. Nobody asked him, Adams told me. His brother Ray was no help. He had woken up briefly when Adams came in, but he had not noticed the time. Adams’ failure to pin down the time that he and Harris arrived at the motel makes sense only when you consider that he didn’t realize for several days (he didn’t even have a lawyer for the first week) that murder was even the focus of the investigation; he thought he was being held as an accessory to burglary. Adams’ statement, dictated after hours of questioning by experienced interrogators, contained not a word about a murder. Even so, it was extremely naïve of Adams to attach such little importance of the sequence of events.
But Adams is naïve. When I interviewed him for three hours recently, Adams, now 38, came across as slowwitted and strangely passive. There was no anger or righteous indignation, no clever conspiratorial theory; even after eleven years, all Adams could think to say in his defense was that he didn’t do it. The lawyers and the filmmaker who are not convinced that Adams is innocent were not persuaded by his winning personality—Adams doesn’t have much charm. They were persuaded by the evidence.
In June 1980, three years after he was imprisoned on death row, Adams got his first break. In a landmark ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his sentence. The issue was strictly technical—a section of Texas law requiring jurors to swear that the possibility of a death sentence would not influence their deliberations on issues of fact was found unconstitutional. In effect the Supreme Court was saying that Adams—and any other death row inmate convicted under the same statute—was entitled to a new trial. Though only the sentence was overturned, it could not be separated from the trial itself. On the day the decision was handed down, district attorney Henry Wade appeared before the media and swore that Adams would be tried and convicted a second time.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals had fifteen days to order a new trial, but something happened in the meantime. In an end run around their dilemma, Wade and his staff persuaded Governor Bill Clements to commute Adams’ sentence to life in prison. With the death sentence removed, the conviction was otherwise without error, and plans for a new trial were promptly forgotten. “I think it was obvious to the district attorney that the Adams case was dirty,” said Bruder. “They could see from the evidence Dennis White dug up after the trial that if a more vigorous counsel got ahold of this case, they had big problems. At the very least, Harris, Turko, and Emily Miller would have been discredited.”
No lawyer in Dallas had a better feel for capital murder cases than Mel Bruder. Adams was his second landmark Supreme Court reversal—in 1972 he had argued Branch v. Texas, one of the four cases that persuaded the Supreme Court to overturn all of the death penalty statutes in the country. Bruder and George Preston were handling Adams’ appeal pro bono by now. The $5000 that the state had paid Bruder to take the appeal had been depleted during three years of work. But Adams’ case had become, if not an obsession, at least a crusade with Bruder. Part of the reason was that Bruder thought Judge Metcalfe went out of his way to rub Bruder’s nose in the case after the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the guilty verdict. That the U.S. Supreme Court had later overturned the judgment failed to faze Metcalfe, who often cited the case in his lectures at Dallas Baptist University. The highest criminal court in Texas upheld him, 9-0, Metcalfe reminded his students, while the Supreme Court, on a technicality, overturned the decision by a vote of 8 to 1 (Justice William Rehnquist, he liked to point out, was the dissenter). “The way I add it up,” he said, “that makes me the winner, ten to eight.”
Meanwhile, Mildred Adams, dissatisfied with the pace of her son’s appeal, decided to bring in another attorney. Mrs. Adams could not afford to hire Houston lawyer Richard “Racehorse” Haynes, but in July 1982 she arranged to pay a small monthly fee—for expenses mostly—to Randy Schaffer, a first-rate young lawyer who had been hired by Haynes even before he finished law school. In February 1984 Schaffer filed an application for a writ of habeas corpus, in which he asserted that crucial evidence had been suppressed and that new evidence, which would have impeached witnesses, had emerged. If Adams was granted a writ hearing, Schaffer would have to prove that Adams had been railroaded—his guilt or innocence would not be an issue. There was no guarantee Adams would get a hearing, much less a new trial.
Once he had read the voluminous record on file in Austin, Schaffer began to sniff around. In an old detective magazine, he stumbled across something that none of the lawyers had realized: Officer Turko had been hypnotized. Later, he found the same report in the Dallas Times Herald. If reporters for two such diverse publications had uncovered Turko’s hypnosis, how was it that Doug Mulder hadn’t known? Other reports, many of which hadn’t been seen by Dennis White, made clear beyond question that Turko hadn’t known the killer’s hairstyle until days after the shooting. Schaffer also discovered that Emily Miller had indeed told Doug Mulder that she was checking into the Alamo Plaza Motel. Mulder later testified that he didn’t know that the Millers were still in town, but he could not explain why a receipt showing that the Millers made 135 local telephone calls at the Alamo Plaza was in his case file.
In October 1986 Schaffer was notified that a federal magistrate in Dallas had granted a writ hearing. On a hunch, Schaffer decided to visit David Harris. Harris wasn’t hard to find—he was on death row for killing a man in Beaumont. Harris was surprisingly candid. He admitted that he had lied at Adams’ trial when he swore that nobody had promised him a deal. Not only had Doug Mulder promised to “take care” of Harris’ pending charges in Orange County, he told Schaffer (and later testified), but he had also instructed Harris to lie about the deal if he was asked in court. Harris stopped short of admitting that he also lied about Adams’ killing the cop, but he went out of his way to leave that impression.
Doug Mulder has denied any knowledge of a deal, but according to Harris’ recent testimony, Harris was never prosecuted for the robbery and burglary charges or for his probation violation. Schaffer also learned that robbery charges against Emily Miller’s daughter, which were pending in Judge Metcalfe’s court at the time of Randall Adams’ trial, were dismissed five days after Adams was sentenced to die.
At the federal writ hearing that concluded in January, Randy Schaffer and Mel Bruder presented the new evidence and some insights into old evidence, including information that had come from a totally unexpected source. New York filmmaker Errol Morris had become interested in Adams while researching a film project on death row inmates. Morris’ previous films, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, were critically acclaimed and have become cult classics. His film about Adams is due for release this fall. Morris accumulated an impressive amount of information on Adams’ case, not the least of which was the district attorney’s file. Henry Wade would never have given that file to the defense, but he offered it up in its entirety to the filmmaker.
Morris spent months poring over the files and tracking down witnesses. He located David Harris through a parole officer in Orange County. Since testifying against Adams, Harris had committed one crime after another. Free of legal problems, he joined the Army six months after Adams’ trial. Within a year he was convicted of burglarizing a house trailer in Germany and was sent to the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. Paroled in June 1979, Harris went to California, where he was charged with burglary and robbery the following November. The police also suspected that he had kidnapped a hitchhiker and forced him to take part in the crimes, though Harris was never charged with that offense. Sentenced to six and a half years in San Quentin, Harris was paroled again in December 1984. He returned to Vidor, where Morris found him the following summer. “He was an engaging young man,” Morris told me, “not menacing or frightening. My main concern was to do a film interview, so I didn’t press him just then with any tough questions.” A few months later, Morris was shocked to hear that Harris had been arrested again and charged with capital murder. The crime this time was right out the sociopath’s handbook: he had broken into a Beaumont apartment, dragged a young woman naked and screaming to his car, then pumped five slugs into her boyfriend as he attempted a rescue.
Morris tracked down the other witnesses in Adams’ trial and persuaded them to be interviewed on film. The interviews he conducted with Emily Miller and Michael Randell offer insights into why the two witnesses were so positive that Adams was the man in the car. Mrs. Miller, who appeared before Morris’ camera wearing a scarlet dress and long platinum hair (her hair was black at the time of the trial), clearly saw herself as the heroine in this drama. She revealed that her lifelong fantasy was to be a girl Friday to a famous private detective like Charlie Chan or Boston Blackie. Even before Officer Wood’s murder, she explained, she had been an eyewitness to an incredible number of murders and acts of violence. “When something like this would happen…I would go see if I could solve it before anyone else could,” she said. The most significant thing that Mrs. Miller said, however, was that she and her ex-husband, Robert, had indeed viewed a live lineup at the police station. That was an extraordinary revelation, because no police lineup identification forms were in the case file, as is required by law. In the film interview, she admitted that not only had she and her husband viewed a lineup, but they also had failed to pick Randall Adams. Robert Miller didn’t pick anyone, and Emily picked one of the decoys. And that wasn’t all. At the writ hearing, she testified that as they were leaving the lineup room, a policeman pointed out the man he said she should have picked—Randall Dale Adams. So, in Mrs. Miller’s own opinion, she had not lied when she said in court that she had identified Adams at a lineup.
Adams’ attorneys already knew that Michael Randell had lied about playing basketball the night of the murder—he had also led the jury to believe he used to play in the National Basketball Association, another lie. Watching Morris’ filmed interview of the witness, Schaffer and Bruder learned where Randell had really been that night. Before Morris’ camera, Randell said he had been drinking at the Plush Pub in Fort Worth that night, and he was hurrying home because the woman in the car wasn’t his wife. “My wife…would’ve tore my heard off if she knew I was out that night with another woman,” he said. But Randell was sure he had identified the right man. Being a salesman, he made it his business to study people and situations; he had developed, he said, the rare gift of total recall. In his fantasy, at least, Randell saw everything and forgot nothing. Subpoenaed a year after his interview with Morris and required to testify at the writ hearing in the court of U.S. magistrate John Tolle, Randell couldn’t even remember if he was married at the time of the murder.
Tolle’s decision on Adams’ case is expected later this year. If a new trial is ordered, it is likely that the Dallas district attorney will fold, and Adams will go free. Both Henry Wade and Doug Mulder have left the DA’s office, and without credible witnesses, there is no case.
His Little Secret
A few weeks after the hearing, I visited David Ray Harris on death row at the Ellis Unit outside Huntsville. Harris is 26 now but looks five years younger—his blue eyes still sparkle, and there is still a boyish charm behind his grin. I asked Harris if he ever thought of Adams and how different both of their lives might have been if only Adams had invited him to spend the night at his motel. It was a loaded question. I knew from conversations with Adams that his answer would have special meaning: if he said yes, it would be an acknowledgement that Wood was killed after Harris had left Adams at the motel room.
“I think about it,” Harris said, and the memory seemed to touch something deep. “If he’d just said, ‘Come on in…’”
Harris didn’t reply, but his answer was obvious.
“Adams didn’t kill that cop, did he?”
A thin smile played along his lips, as though he were pleased I had guessed his little secret. He shook his head no.
“Did you kill him?”
He thought about the question for a while. Then he said, “I can’t answer that.”
“It can’t hurt you now,” I said, though I knew that wasn’t necessarily true.
“It can’t help me either,” he said. “But if it ever gets to the point where they’re strapping me on that gurney to die, stand by for a statement.”