The Thin Blue Line

Released:  1988

Cast:  Randall Adams, David Harris

SUMMARY:  This film is a documentary detailing the crime and court case surrounding Randall Adams.  Some reenactments are used in the film, but most of the story is told by those associated with the case.

In October of 1976, Randall Adams was heading to California with his brother.  On the way, they stopped in Dallas on Thanksgiving night; when Randall was offered a job the next day, the two decided to stay in town for a while.  Adams went to work on Saturday, only to find that the company did not work on weekends.  He headed back to the hotel where he was staying with his brother, but his car ran out of gas on the way.  Adams took a gas can and began walking, only to be quickly picked up by David Harris.  Harris was sixteen years old, and already had a reputation around town (Vidor, Texas, his hometown) as a troublemaker.  He had stolen the car he was driving from his neighbor, and had also taken his father’s pistol and shotgun.  However, his association with Adams was friendly, and Harris even spent time with the brothers after returning Randall to the hotel.  After sharing some beer and marijuana, Randall and Harris decided to go to a drive-in movie, leaving Randall’s brother at the hotel.

That same night,  police officer Robert W. Wood was shot and killed after stopping a car.  The car was the same one that was stolen by David Harris.  Wood and his partner, one of the first female patrol officers on the Dallas force, had pulled the car over because it did not have its headlights on.  Wood approached the driver, and was abruptly shot and killed through the open window.  The police immediately began investigating, and quickly tied things to David Harris.  Harris had already bragged to his friends about committing the crim (both the auto theft and the murder), but when questioned by the police, he claimed that Randall Harris fired the shots.  He then pointed the police to both the car and the murder weapon.  Randall Harris was tried and convicted for murder, and sentenced to death.  Several lawyers who worked for the defense are interviewed, and, citing the lack of strong evidence against Adams, suggest that because a police officer had been murdered, the state of Texas wanted a death penalty — and David Harris, being only sixteen, could not be sentenced to death.  A number of witnesses from the trial are also interviewed, with some having clearly suspect testimony.  Adams’ death sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1980; David Harris ultimately ended up on death row for another crime.

MY TAKE:  There are time when the American legal system is amazing, and investigators and lawyers prove things that are absolutely astounding.  Some of the most inspiring movies are set in courtrooms — A Few Good Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men.  Then there are times when there is a gross miscarriage of justice, like with the Duke lacrosse case (an excellent 30 for 30 documentary), or this movie.  In most of these cases, there seems to be a lack of desire on the part of either the lawyers or the police to look beyond a certain suspect, or to investigate other theories.  That’s the beauty and the curse of the American justice system:  it’s enforced by human beings, who are not infallible.  I would like to say that I think that most of the time the justice system gets it right, but obviously there are people who have been wrongly convicted.  This movie ends by noting that Adams was still in prison, and that David Harris was ultimately executed, after basically admitting to pinning the crime on Adams out of spite.  However, about a year after the film’s release — and largely due to the film’s impact — Adams’ case was reviewed, and he was released from prison.  It’s not noted in the film, but it’s extremely satisfying to learn that Adams was eventually cleared, because it’s almost painfully obvious that he didn’t commit the crime.  As a result of its impact and its (then) radically-different techniques (interviewing actual participants, reenactments based on the testimony), this movie has become  landmark in the documentary genre.

RATING:  Frustrating but good.

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