Part Director, Part Private Eye, Errol Morris Finds The Thin Blue Line Between a Man's Guilt and Innocence

updated 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/26/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Three years ago a former New York City gumshoe and struggling documentary filmmaker named Errol Morris walked into a maximum security Texas prison for a friendly chat with convicted murderers. He was working on a small PBS-financed movie about "Dr. Death," a psychiatrist whose expert testimony in criminal trials has sent many Texans to death row. One of the men Morris talked to was Randall Dale Adams, a former drifter whose death sentence for the murder of a Dallas policeman eight years before had been commuted to life imprisonment. Morris thought there was something fishy about the story Adams told him. "He had a strange, quirky, but sort of persuasive character," Morris recalls. "It just made me want to find out more." He went back to see Adams again. Soon the film about Dr. Death was forgotten. Morris turned his cameras on the events that had sent Adams to jail. "I became involved in two separate, often conflicting enterprises," he says, "the investigation of a murder and the making of a movie."

The result is Morris' eerie, compelling new film, The Thin Blue Line, which argues that Adams has been caught in a nightmare straight out of Hitchcock—convicted, imprisoned and almost executed for a crime he didn't commit. "It's an Everyman story," says Morris, "a story about our deepest, darkest fears—of being a stranger strapped into an electric chair, screaming, 'I didn't do it!' with nobody, absolutely nobody, willing to listen." Morris' film has been criticized for mixing fact and fictional re-creation in a way that hypes the movie at the expense of objectivity. But The Thin Blue Line, which even includes another man's virtual confession to the murder, may yet lead to Adams' release from prison.

Adams, now 40, has been there 12 years because of what happened Nov. 28, 1976. On one of the coldest early mornings in Dallas history, police officer Robert Wood and his partner stopped a blue car about 12:30 a.m. to ask the driver to turn on its headlights. While Wood, 27, approached the driver, his partner, Teresa Turko, 24, stayed behind in the heated patrol car, drinking a milk shake. It was a routine traffic stop. But seconds later five bullets hit Wood point-blank; he died on the freezing asphalt as the car sped away.

Wood's murder went unsolved for more than a month—unprecedented in Dallas, where cop killers are usually caught within 48 hours. As pressure for an arrest mounted, a lead came from the small town of Vidor, 350 miles away. A 16-year-old boy named David Ray Harris had boasted to his friends of "offing a pig" in Dallas. Upon arrest, Harris admitted that he had been in the car, which he had stolen in Vidor. He admitted that he had stolen the murder weapon, a .22-cal. revolver, from his father. But, Harris protested, Wood's killer was Randall Adams, 28, a hitchhiker he had picked up the day before the crime. Adams, arrested by Dallas police, said Harris had indeed given him a ride and they had spent their time drinking beer and smoking grass. But Adams said Harris left him at his room at the Comfort Motel before 10 p.m., angry that Adams refused to put him up for the night. At the trial five months later, the jury didn't believe that story and, largely on Harris' testimony, convicted Adams. Harris, who had a string of felonies behind him, went free. Adams, who had no previous criminal record, was sentenced to die. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1980, and he languished in the Eastham Unit prison until his chance meeting with Morris.

The 40-year-old filmmaker was uniquely qualified to investigate the suspicious conviction. A former student of philosophy at Berkeley and Princeton, Morris had worked with German director Werner (Aguirre: Wrath of God) Herzog before earning a reputation in the documentary film industry as a chronicler of human eccentricity. His first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), focused on California pet cemeteries; his second, Vernon, Florida (1981), on the elderly in a small Southern town. Although critics lauded both efforts, the movies made no money. For two years, before PBS came along with the Dr. Death offer in 1985, Morris worked as a private eye in New York.

Morris' two-year investigation of Adams' case included more than 200 interviews. He tracked down the three surprise eyewitnesses who had testified at Adams' trial; all told stories on film that differed from what they had said in court. He also found that Wood's partner had first reported seeing one person in the car, then testified that she had seen two men. He even tracked down David Harris. "He broke one appointment because he was off killing somebody," Morris says. Harris, now on death row for that 1985 murder, came close to identifying himself to Morris as Wood's killer.

Morris, who divides his time between Manhattan and Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, Julia, 38, an art historian, and their son, Nathaniel, 17 months, recently testified on Adams' behalf in federal court. "I'm immensely pleased by the reception the movie is receiving," says Morris, "and particularly by the attention it has focused on Adams." And although Adams' appeal has so far been denied, Morris is optimistic. "If there is any justice," says the director, "he will get out. I won't be satisfied until Adams is not only out of jail, but exonerated."

—By Patricia Freeman, with Victoria Balfour in New York

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