When I was a boy my father preached that in the "American way of life" you are innocent till proven guilty. No greater lie has been told. The man charged before the court has flat got to prove his innocence. Go witness a criminal trial and watch. The state is supposed to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If you read decisions of the various courts of appeal and the Supreme Court you discover that truth and falsehood, right and wrong have no place in court. All the state needs is "evidence to support a conviction". If this is justice, then justice be damned.
So wrote David Ferrie, wrongly accused of being involved in the JFK assassination. Although he was clearly referring to his own legal troubles, his words could have come straight from the mouth of Randall Adams.
On November 27th, 1976, Adams was in Dallas hanging out with a young man called David Harris who had helped him when he’d run out of petrol. Quickly surmising that the kid was a little too eager to wave a gun about, Adams was relieved to part ways with Harris at the end of the day. Shortly after midnight, a police officer by the name of Robert Wood was killed. Although the evidence pointed strongly at Harris (who had boasted about it when he returned home), Randall Adams found himself up before a judge accused of the murder.
While the sixteen-year-old Harris was too young to be given the electric chair, the twenty-seven-year-old Adams (with his Ohio roots and David Crosby look) was a different matter altogether. Although he managed to avoid the chair on a technicality, Adams then spent the next 12 years attempting to prove his innocence. The pioneering 1988 documentary 'The Thin Blue Line' certainly helped Adams walk free, although it created many myths of its own, which endure to this day.
Thankfully, Adams V Texas clears up many of these myths (such as his brother not testifying at his trial, something Adams states did happen) and allows a greater insight into the Texas justice and penal systems that Adams endured. While most of the material will be familiar to those who have seen the film, the tales of brutality, overwork and racial tension that fill most of the pages will be new and, while not a surprise, they take on new connotations whenever you know the narrator is innocent.
His depictions of Texas “justice” (where deals can be struck with juvenile killers and parents of armed robbers for useable evidence) is an all too familiar tale. Although we have heard thousands of variations (Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, West Memphis Three), it’s still enraging and terrifying to read about the lengths some law enforcement officials will go to ensure someone gets put away, regardless of whether they are guilty or innocent.
Often accused of being slow and hapless, Adams reveals himself to be someone who endured this Kafkaesque nightmare with quiet dignity and a stiff upper lip. Always managing to find some strain of optimism as his case works its way through the cogs of the legal system, his reply to any knockback is to reiterate that he is up against the good ol’ boys club in Texas (simultaneously recognising the scale of his challenge and also giving him a focus to his energy). Quite an astonishing character trait to possess, especially as he reveals in the end that, while him and David Harris were never going to mend bridges, he did not support Harris being executed (which took until 2004 to occur).
With these character traits in mind, it becomes obvious why he later sued director Errol Morris over the rights to his life story (which he had signed away during the making of The Thin Blue Line): once he was out, only Adams would have control over his life. And the Morris deal was an embarrassing reminder of how helpless he had been at one point, so suing to regain the rights meant he held all the cards to his destiny again. Although he states his gratitude to Morris for making The Thin Blue Line and refers to him as a friend, Morris subsequently broke contact with him.
I find it incredibly sad that this book has not been reprinted in nearly thirty years. It is a damning indictment of the US justice system and a reminder of how we must forever be vigilant for more Randall Adams out there, and the number of cases from Dallas County that have led to exonerations over the last twenty years have only increased. Plus, with The Thin Blue Line now regarded as one of the greatest documentaries ever made, it would dispel questions such as why Adams hung out with Harris (some have suggested a sexual motive, which is typical of today’s climate) and rescue Adams from the role of victim.
Adams died of a brain tumor in October 2010. His death was not widely reported until the following June. Someone, claiming to be a relative of Officer Wood, wrote this:
Justice was finally served on October 30, 2010. May you rest in peace, and we will see you soon. Please continue to watch over me and always remember you are welcome in my patrol car any day. I know mom misses you and she is finally able to breathe relief. We love you and miss you a great deal.
While we are accustomed to relatives still believing the guilt of long cleared individuals, it is highly disturbing that a serving police officer can seemingly be aware of all the evidence in the case and still think Adams was guilty. If this message is genuine, it ties in with the systemic corruption evident throughout the book and which led to Adams losing 12 years of liberty. Even in death, the man is demonised.
If this is justice, then justice be damned.
Randall Adams, William Hoffer, Marilyn Mona Hoffer, 1992, Adams V Texas, St Martin’s Press. ISBN-13: 978-0312927783
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.