For Randall Dale Adams, deliverance was sweet, if a long time coming. As hundreds of well-wishers wearing yellow ribbons erupted into cheers and applause, the man who went to death row for a murder it now appears all but certain he did not commit stepped off a plane at the Columbus, Ohio, airport. He was back home for the first time after 12½ years in prison. His mother, Mildred, who had waited and prayed for this moment, fell into a tearful embrace with her son. Then out of the crowd stepped filmmaker Errol Morris, whose provocative documentary feature, The Thin Blue Line, helped muster the evidence that won Adams his freedom. Adams embraced Morris and they, too, wept, as someone raised a shout: “Hallelujah!”
Adams’s ordeal at the hands of the Texas criminal justice system began on Nov. 27,1976. That Thanksgiving weekend, Adams, a 27-year-old day laborer from Grove City, Ohio, hitched a ride with 16-year-old David Ray Harris, a boy with an extensive criminal record who “vas driving a stolen car. Early the following morning, someone at the wheel of hat car gunned down Dallas policeman Robert Wood, 27. Police traced the crime to the loose-lipped Harris, who accused Adams of doing the shooting.
Adams insisted Harris had dropped him off at a motel earlier that night, but the Dallas law-enforcement community was eager to get a death penalty conviction, and it fixed on Adams. (As a juvenile, Harris could not have been sentenced to die even if he had been convicted.) The district attorney asked for and won the death sentence for Adams, who had no previous criminal record. Only in 1980 was the sentence finally commuted to life in prison, in order to avoid a retrial ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court. Four years later, Morris, a New York filmmaker who was planning a film about Dr. James Grigson, a controversial Texas psychiatrist who had testified for the prosecution, decided to focus on Adams instead (PEOPLE, Sept. 26, 1988).
“I prayed every day that God would send a Moses,” says Mildred Adams, 65, her voice cracking. “Errol Morris is the Moses that God sent.” In front of Morris’s cameras, witnesses to Officer Wood’s murder told stories that cast serious doubt on testimony that had helped convict Adams, and Harris, by this time on death row himself for another murder, virtually confessed that he had killed Wood. Harris later affirmed Adams’s innocence in a letter to his mother, writing that “absolving Randall Dale Adams of any guilt is a difficult thing for me to do, but I must try to do so because he is innocent.” At a December 1988 hearing, key witnesses revealed a pattern of deceptive testimony, withheld evidence and outright lies at Adams’s original trial. Still, the Dallas district attorney’s office threatened until the very day of his homecoming to retry Adams. Only then were the charges finally dropped.
Remarkably, Adams has not lost his faith in the courts. “I believe the system of American justice is basically good,” he says, savoring a beer in a Columbus restaurant. “Because if it weren’t, I wouldn’t be sitting here today.” Despite his near-brush with the executioner, Adams has refused to lend his name to a campaign against the death penalty. Under Texas law he is ineligible for any restitution from the state. “I would settle for an apology note,” he says. “It’ll take a while. You don’t forget 13 years just like that. Just don’t ask me to lead any causes for the next 13 years.”
Mildred Adams says flatly that she still believes in capital punishment, though naturally she condemns her son’s treatment. “After all this is over, I’d like to write a letter to David Harris and tell him that God loves him, whether he thinks anyone else does or not,” she says. “I don’t like what he did, and I don’t like what he did to Randy, but he can find peace. He was just a scared 16-year-old. It’s these professional men I don’t understand. Togo to law schools and then just turn around and decide you’re going to put an innocent man on death row.”
Adams himself admits that, with the book still open on the Wood case, he fears the prosecution will even now try to unearth some other “witness” and force his return to Texas for retrial. For the present, though, he is more concerned with finding work and adapting to life outside prison. The youngest of five children of a miner who died of black-lung disease in 1960, Adams graduated from Grove City High School in 1967, and he served three years as a U.S. Army paratrooper. He was working for a local contractor when he was arrested, but in prison he earned a correspondence-course degree from Lee College in Baytown, Texas.
He also exchanged letters with a woman whose identity he plans to keep secret for the time being. “I don’t want things to be ruined before they have a chance to develop,” he says. “I’ll try to keep this part of my life private if possible, at least until we both know where the relationship is going.”
Despite his years behind bars, Adams seems to feel that to dwell on his past would make him a prisoner of another kind. “Bitter? I’m not bitter at all,” he says. “Of course, I do not like the fact that these years were taken from me. But these last two days are the first in a new life, and I will not let the past ruin what lies ahead for me. I will be happy.”
—Montgomery Brower, Anne Maier in Houston, Ken Myers and Sandra Gurvis in Columbus