The Thin Blue Line

(spoiler alert)
Synopsis from Wikipedia:

Randall Dale Adams (December 17, 1948 – October 30, 2010) was wrongly convicted of murdering police officer Robert W. Wood, and was subsequently sentenced to death. He served more than 12 years in prison, at one point coming within 72 hours of being put to death. His death sentence was reduced through appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and eight years later he was released when evidence was uncovered to prove his innocence. Adams’ case is profiled in the documentary THE THIN BLUE LINE.

My Opinion:

I always argued in favor of capital punishment because it is so obvious to me that in murdering someone the murderer forfeits his rights totally. I couldn’t stand the arguments that every life is equally valid and who are we to take a life and judge a person, blah blah blah. I’ll tell you who we are–we are innocent people who have but one life to live and if some out-of-control sociopath kills us it’s over forever but for him, he may serve ten or twenty years, maybe even his whole life, but he gets to live and we don’t–it’s just not fair.

Over time, however, I have come to distrust the State to such an extent that I now believe it is dangerous to entrust it even with this, one of its few arguably legitimate functions, so I must withdraw my support for capital punishment.

I will never in a million years protest outside a prison on the night of the execution of a confessed murderer–if you have him dead to rights I’ll be glad he’s gone. But murder is not the only capital crime in this country: treason, espionage and drug trafficking are capital offenses in some states. This is very different from putting people to death for violent attacks on innocent people. These crimes are what they call mala prohibita rather than mala in se–that is, like gambling and prostitution, they are crimes because the government prohibits them not because they are inherently wrong. Granted, espionage and treason are arguably inherently wrong, but that’s only if your government is inherently right. Once the government can kill people for crimes defined by the government and one of those crimes is opposing the government, well, you better hope you like your government–and that it likes you!

Several years ago, when I saw THE THIN BLUE LINE for the first time, it did not move me to change my pro-capital-punishment stance. I thought that the reason that the Adams case was such a big deal was that mistakes in the capital justice system are so rare they actually make a movie about them when they happen. What’s more, Adams did get out of jail eventually and was not executed, so no innocent man was killed in the end. Even now, I still have a hard time accepting the obvious but terrible truth that people in power are not more scrupulous about wielding power than the average joe would be, but are often less so by the very nature of what motivates people to seek and attain power. It still pains me to think that a district attorney or other public servant may have selfish motives for the decisions he makes and doesn’t stay up all night agonizing about doing the right thing the way so many of us ordinary folks do.

I decided to rewatch this documentary when a controversial case caught my attention claiming that an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, was executed in Texas on Rick Perry’s watch. I don’t know the merits of the Willingham case, but it made me interested in Adams’ clear-cut case of a wrongfully imposed death penalty. This time I was abjectly horrified by the miscarriage of justice suffered by Adams, falsely accused, tried, convicted and sentenced to death for killing a Dallas police officer in the Seventies, most likely to preserve the perfect record of the DA who tried the case. I have been haunted for days by the film’s interviews with the mild-mannered Adams and the obviously sociopathic David Harris, the real killer and main accuser of Adams.

I am always skeptical about documentaries because one simply cannot know what the filmmakers left out or stretched to make their case, but this documentary supports the irrefutable conclusion that Adams served 12 years in jail and came 72 hours away from death for a crime he didn’t commit. Eventually Adams was released and exonerated only to die at the age of 61 of a brain tumor. (Maybe cognitive dissonance causes brain tumors. I sure hope not.)

“The fact that it took 12 and a half years and a movie to prove my innocence should scare the hell out of everyone in this room and, if it doesn’t, then that scares the hell out of me.” –Randall Adams

Here’s a video of Michael Morton, another man wrongly convicted in Texas by the malfeasance of the authorities. He served 25 years for killing his wife and lost the love of his then-small son. He was ultimately exonerated, but his story is heartbreaking.

8 Responses to The Thin Blue Line

  1. I totally agree with you, and I arrived at this conclusion the same way. Traditionally I have supported capital punishment for heinus crimes and often from the perspective of wanting to permanently remove the threat and/or opposing the idea of keeping perpetrators of horrible crimes alive, warehousing them for decades at great expense to the taxpayer. However I have developed a distrust of power in the hands of the state after realizing the extent to which it is abused (at all levels). In regards to wrongful conviction, it is more common than one might think. My lawyer and great friend works on the innocence project, helping to free people who have lost years of their lives who have done no wrong. It is disturbing the extent to which prosecutors dont care as they got their pond of flesh with the conviction and the notch in the career “win” collumn. Thus they are not motivated to concede error and less so misconduct. I will have to watch this documentary.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well that is why it is so important that any “death sentence ” cases in america that can use dna evedince to confirm or deny the truth of the case needs to be implemented. Adam’s case like many others happened well before the technology has advanced to where it is today. I don’t believe the death penalty should be ended, but a temporary moratorium put in place till everyone that is currently on death row can have a chance to ppossibly clear themselves if so warranted. After that shoot the rest of them.

  3. Bradrad says:

    Well, I know this is an old discussion, but I just wanted to maybe counterweight the opinions a little. Not only do I agree with those who would not give the power of execution to government which invariably, inevitably misuses all the powers given to it, but I also think that killing a caged man is morally wrong, no matter whether we do it ourselves, or hire government agents to do it.
    It’s not that we believe that some good will come from that wicked soul we spare, but that the hearts we harden enough to shoot a man in a cage are our own hearts. And no, I do not wish to legislate or force anyone to show mercy. I just would persuade you to be careful not to sear your hearts upon the flames of anger and vengeance. Think of this as one of those signs that warn you that the bridge might be slippery when it snows, a warning against damaging your own soul.

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