Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lone Star Justice

Today's NYTimes carries an obituary for Randall Dale Adams, who died last year of a brain tumor, with only local media taking note. Adams was the unintended star of Errol Morris' epic documentary on Texas justice, The Thin Blue Line (1988). Texas has no dearth of serious miscarriages of justice, including the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, a very likely innocent man. But no miscarriage was ever better covered than Adam's wrongful conviction and death sentence for the murder of a Dallas police officer. Adam's came within three days of execution before the Supreme Court stepped in to review the case based on errors by the trial judge in dismissing jurors who expressed misgivings about capital punishment, but a willingness to follow the law. Perhaps realizing they had the wrong man, the governor quickly commuted Adam's sentence to life in prison, rather than allow further litigation. Adam's may well have spent the rest of his ultimately short life in the Texas Department of Corrections but for Morris' documentary. Morris went to Texas to do a documentary on the infamous Dr. Grigson (better known as Dr. Death), a forensic psychiatric "expert" who routinely testified for the prosecution in Texas capital cases (where future dangerousness is a required finding for death sentences) that defendant was dangerous, usually without bothering to even interview the subjects. But Morris became fascinated with Adam's case (he was one of Grigson's victims) and decided to focus the documentary on him.

The Thin Blue Line is perhaps the best movie ever made about contemporary criminal justice and should be watched by anyone interested in law enforcement and especially anyone who still supports the death penalty. It was a primer in why states cannot be trusted to wield the power to execute persons (or perhaps even the power to imprison them for life). When a police officer is murdered there is a consensus among law enforcement officials that someone must pay, preferably with their life, no matter what it takes, even if its the wrong man. The title comes from the frequent metaphor for the way police protect society, which was repeated by the trial judge in an interview with Morris, expressing why he felt so strongly that the officer's death must be avenged. The police and prosecutors in Dallas actually had a suspect that was almost certainly the right man, unfortunately (for the prosecutors), David Harris was 16, too young to receive a death penalty in Texas. But when Harris blamed the shooting (which was done with a gun that belonged to Harris' father) on Randall Dale Adams, who Harris had picked up hitch-hiking and then spent the day before the murder smoking pot and drinking beer with, Texas law enforcement knew they had their man. Adams was a perfect suspect, he was newcomer to the state, with no local friends or supporters, and no resources to pay for an adequate defense (he actually ended up with an excellent lawyer but there was little she could do to overcome the prosecution's cooked evidence). Despite the absence of a criminal record or a motive (which Harris had plenty of), Texas decided he was executable and pinned the murder on him.

The prosecution case was a textbook example of how to wrongfully convict a man. The police hid evidence that pointed to Harris and provided incentives for witnesses to come forward to identify Adams (the prosecutors after all, have a "get out of jail free" card to give anyone they want help from). Not only was Adam's almost executed, and deprived of years of freedom (and probably his health), but David Harris, a young man on an escalating curve of crime, went on to kill another man, and for that crime was himself eventually executed. Thus two unnecessary deaths were caused by the prosecutors in Dallas. In a just society, some of them would have spent years behind bars for their crimes, but none of them was ever even disciplined (nor ever apologized) and Adams was never compensated.

Now you know why I like to say, go ahead, Mess with Texas! a state that never looks back and still executes more than almost the rest of the states in the union combined. If Governor Rick Perry, the man who authorized the execution of Cameron Willingham, runs for president, hopefully Texas justice will get some long overdue national attention. (Read Ta-NeHisi Coates excellent column in the NYTimes discussing Perry and Willingham)

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