Film review: The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the conviction of innocent people

This highly acclaimed documentary by Errol Morris has been on my to-see list for the longest time but I never got around to it. I watched it last night and it deserves all the accolades it received. It is also a grim reminder of how in America, at least in some jurisdictions, so many innocent people are executed or incarcerated for decades because the police and prosecutors care less about the truth than ‘notching up a win’ and closing a case as quickly as they can.

The case so well illustrates that when police and prosecutors severely distort the judicial process in order to get a conviction, it is not just that an innocent person is deprived of life and liberty, as bad as that is, but that a whole lot of random innocent people suffer because of it. In their zeal to convict an innocent man of murder, the Dallas police and prosecutors let the real killer walk free and subsequently commit a string of violent crimes for a decade that ended with another murder. It was only after he was arrested for that second murder that the crime spree ended. The authorities are thus indirectly responsible for all those crimes.

Here’s the story. In 1976, Randall Adams and his brother were going from Ohio to California to try and make a better life for themselves, and around Thanksgiving stopped at Dallas, Texas. Adams happened to get a job immediately and so they decided to stay on. While driving back to his motel a few days later, Adams ran out of gas and while walking to the gas station was given a ride by a teenager David Harris, who was driving a stolen car and happened to have a couple of guns with him. They spent some time together at a bar and at a drive-in movie theater. That much they agree on.

Later that same night, a police officer stopped a car that was driving without lights and as he walked up to it, he was shot five times and died instantly. Although there was evidence that suggested that Harris had done the killing after separating from Adams (Harris had even bragged about it to his friends) the local police and prosecutor seemed determined to pin the case on Adams, based solely on Harris’s testimony that Adams had been the driver of the car and the shooter. Why? It is not clear. Adams’s defense attorney thinks that there were two possible reasons. One is that Harris was a local boy while Adams was an outsider. The other is that the prosecutor, who prided himself on putting people to death, could not get the death penalty for Harris because of his age but could get it for Adams. And sure enough, they managed to get Adams convicted on the murder charge and then get the death penalty.

In 1980, the US Supreme Court overturned the death penalty verdict but instead of giving Adams a new trial where he might have been exonerated, the prosecutors got the governor of Texas to commute the death sentence to life in prison, thus negating the need for a new trial. In 1985 Harris was arrested for another murder and was executed in June 2004.

Filmmaker Errol Morris had meant to make a documentary about the psychologist in Dallas James Grigson who examined people convicted of murder to see if they deserved the death penalty. This psychologist, after the most cursory of examinations or even none at all, would invariably go to court and say that he was 100% certain that the defendant would commit further crimes if allowed out again, was thus a permanent danger to the public, and should be put to death. He participated in 167 capital murder cases and almost all of them resulted in the death penalty and he was even given the nickname Doctor Death. In Adams’s case, he said that he was a totally unrepentant, remorseless killer with a Charles Manson-like mentality who would commit further crimes if ever set free. Between the psychologist, the police, the prosecutors, and judges who were extremely sympathetic to the prosecution, large numbers of people were sentenced to death in Texas. According to Wikipedia, in 1995, Grigson “was exposed as a charlatan and expelled by the American Psychiatric Association and the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians in 1995 for unethical conduct. ”

In preparing to investigate the psychologist, Morris came across the Adams case and became skeptical that Adams was the killer and that it was more likely to be Harris and he shifted the focus of the documentary. The documentary has re-enactments of the murder scene as recounted by various people and many interviews with Adams, Harris, the police who investigated the case, and the judge who presided at the trial, though the prosecutor declined to be interviewed. In 1989, a year or so after the documentary was released and as a result of the publicity it generated, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Texas overturned the conviction and Adams was freed because the court determined that “the State had suppressed evidence favorable to Adams, deceived the trial court, and knowingly used perjured testimony to gain his conviction.” Harris later recanted his testimony that placed the blame for killing on Adams, testimony for which he had been granted immunity for his other crimes.

Although the film was made in 1988, it remains timely because this kind of miscarriage of justice due to prosecutorial malfeasance continues to this day.

Here’s the trailer. The music score is by Philip Glass and adds significantly to the mood of the film.


  1. says

    I will definitely watch that.

    The entire system of plea bargains and threatening over-charging has evolved specifically in order to avoid “innocent until proven guilty”, “evidence”, and a “jury of one’s peers.” And everyone involved in the US Justice System knows it and they all dance around it constantly.

    PS -- Free Leonard Peltier.

  2. Steve Cameron says

    It’s one of Morris’ best and, along with the Stephen Hawking doc “A Brief History of Time,” it really put him high in the ranks of documentarians. My personal favorite is “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” a far less weighty film that weaves the stories of four men with unusual occupations together into a fugue-like narrative. His first feature, about the service industry surrounding the death of pets, “Gates of Heaven” is also worth a watch. None of these stand up to “The Thin Blue Line” in the social justice arena, however.

  3. jrkrideau says

    Err, excuse me but James Grigson was not a psychologist but a psychiatrist. They are not even close to being similar.

  4. lanir says

    It’s probably better that it’s from the 80’s. Remember, politically the people who justify and support that thin blue line also glorify some mythical past age. Things like this make it harder for them to retreat into some imagined past and avoid facing systemic corruption and malfeasance in the US justice system.

  5. John Morales says

    It’s probably better that it’s from the 80’s.

    More to the point, it’s historical.

    Sheesh — I was born in 5Nov1960, and I damn well remember in the mid to late 1970s watching stuff from the 1950’s — that was historical and even quaint (cf. Happy Days) — and even from earlier; and I’m speaking of less than 3 decades.

    Same thing.

    (Nearly into 2018 now. Merry new calendar year, and happy New Year’s Day to all)

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