Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 7
I loved university life – an intellectually welcome space where one could study the bounds of knowledge and experience. Eventually, however, I was expected to go forth into the “real world” and be productive. I went right to work in a cubicle as a “professional,” which was, at once, empowering and soul-sucking. Several years later, I returned to law school, and with that feeling still fresh in my mind, I figured that my last semester would be my last opportunity for an exercise in experiential immersion – not because it was germane to a grade, a major, or a job. So I enrolled in the capital punishment class/clinic, along with only a half a dozen others, which would involve 20+ hours per week providing appellate support for the clinic’s lawyers representing death row inmates – reviewing transcripts of voir dire, hearings, and trials; interviewing defendants, jurors, and witnesses; and even drafting a portion of a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, executions in the U.S. were at a high point since capital punishment had been reinstated in the U.S. in 1976, and a young law student could feel like he was in the middle of something important. At the end of the day, I did learn a few things – among them, the degree of my own naiveté.
On one of the first days of class, our professor brought in a TV/VCR and popped in director Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, which was then almost a decade old. Our professor never really explained exactly why we were watching this documentary about a convict whose sentence had already been commuted to life at the time it had been shot. On a specific level, we would be working in Texas, and I suppose he wanted to familiarize us with the often unbelievable aspects of its capital punishment regime (including psychiatrist, James “Dr. Death” Grigson, who was the original subject of Morris’ film) – what Morris now characterizes as “a mistake-engendering machine.” On a more general level, I think our professor wanted us (including those in the class who philosophically supported the death penalty) to turn up our sense of skepticism – way up. To be sure, that initial viewing of The Thin Blue Line pales in comparison to joining my supervisory lawyer in my first meeting of an appellant on death row, taking a guided tour of the “death chamber,” or witnessing a juror who had a tattoo of a swastika on his shoulder start to tear up during an interview. Nonetheless, as much as any single film, The Thin Blue Line has probably affected my disposition the most – or the most irrevocably.
“I have forever – as long as I can remember, and this is still true – hated this postmodern idea that truth is constructed or it’s in some way relative to one way at looking at things than another. To me, truth is absolute. It doesn’t mean that we can know it. But if you ask me today, years after the release of The Thin Blue Line, there is a fact of the matter: someone killed Robert Wood, someone pulled that gun out from out underneath that seat and fired those five shots – it’s not up for grabs, it’s not ‘I think it’s X and you think it’s Y.’ There is a fundamental reality and history. And one of the things that The Thin Blue Line taught me – maybe not in all instances, but in some instances – is you can answer that question if you work hard enough, if you try hard enough, if you investigate thoroughly enough. You can answer those questions. I hate to think I couldn’t have solved this crime because I was too damn lazy.”
– Errol Morris (10/2014)
Almost two decades later, from the perspective of a mere passive viewer, The Thin Blue Line distinguishes itself by its sense of gravity. Among many critics, Morris is lauded more for his open fascination with, and examination of, the salt of the earth eccentrics in his two earlier indie favs, Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981); but with all of the perceived polish and style of The Thin Blue Line, Morris himself characterizes interviewee/witnesses like Emily Miller as “some of the craziest stuff I’ve put to film.”
And Miller’s quirks are not just disturbingly cute – they almost contributed to killing an innocent man, Randall Adams. The Thin Blue Line itself – and the investigation that went into its production – is largely responsible for freeing that man.
Beyond its practical significance, most of the notoriety of The Thin Blue Line is attributable to Morris’ anti-vérité approach to storytelling, and specifically, the controversial choice of including reenactments of the crime. This aspect alone resulted in the documentary being denied an Oscar nomination. And critics took issue not just with Morris use of reenactments, but with the deliberately and unapologetically noirish presentation.
But that choice in portraying the crime according to the prosecution theories was a clear evocation – the foggy fantasy of a cop killing, a mutable imagining to the truth (in contrast to the truth itself), with a tumbling milkshake punctuating the absurdity. As director Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing (2013)) astutely observes, this aspect is clearly borne out by the fact that Morris never once reenacts a version of events that he himself believes to be true.
In this sense, the reenactments of the crime merely contribute to Morris’ overall approach to The Thin Blue Line (sans the very last scene) – that is, to reveal the truth by means of exposing the lies. As with his other documentaries, Morris has a penchant for allowing (seemingly passively) his interviewees to reveal the truth of themselves with their own words, their own form of solo play acting before the camera. And what Morris offers us here are the participating members of law enforcement revealing just how precipitously thin that line is between suspicion and certainty, between a presumption of innocence and a presumption of guilt. No quantum of constitutional protections will help an innocent defendant if enough of the key players have already made up their minds. As such, Morris expands the scope of the documentary beyond that of a single injustice against a single man; he indicts all of the key players in Dallas County for, in Morris’ own words, turning a “justice system” into a “punishment system.” Investigators are portrayed as choosing to pursue the suspect who was old enough to be put to death (as opposed to the one who was not); the prosecutor is reported to have boasted about the skills it takes to secure a capital sentence against a defendant who was probably innocent; and the judge admits to getting teary-eyed at said prosecutor’s closing arguments.
And yet, with these dual purposes in mind, there are two missing pieces that have always kept The Thin Blue Line from being a perfect documentary – at least in my mind.
Why Randall Adams? … I mean, really.
On November 28, 1976, the 28 year-old Adams, a transient man who had been staying in a hotel with his brother (originally en route to California), had the gross misfortune of meeting a 16 year-old Harris, who (unknown to Adams) had just stolen a car in his small home town of Vidor, Texas, and was in the midst of a crime spree that had taken him to the big city of Dallas. Later that night, when Harris’ car was pulled over for failing to have the headlights turned on, police officer Robert Wood was shot five times and killed as he approached the drivers’ window. The key factual determination was not whether Harris was involved, but whether Adams was with Harris at that point in time and actually shot officer Wood – an allegation that Adams adamantly denied. The next day, Harris returned home to Vidor, along with the weapon, and bragged to his friends about shooting a “pig” in Dallas. When Harris was eventually arrested for other crimes and raised the suspicion of local police with respect to the Dallas murder, the investigators and prosecutors – hell bent on making someone pay for the cop killing – chose to turn Harris, who had both a criminal record and a propensity for violence, into a witness for the prosecution against Adams, who had neither. (See also Gary Cartwright, “The Longest Ride of His Life,” Texas Monthly (May 1987).)
All of this exposition merely begs the question: when the Dallas County police and the prosecution were put to a choice, why would they choose to charge Adams and not Harris? In the film, one of Adams’ lawyers alleges that the trial court judge referred to Adams as “only a drifter”; whereas Harris was a white boy from the KKK stronghold of Vidor, where the (incorrect) rumor had been floated that officer Wood was black. But in all intellectual honesty, there seems to be more to the perception of Adams that would have incurred the wrath of Dallas County’s punishment system circa 1976.
“The reason the police jumped so hard on Adams was something more than his being of a suitable age to receive the death sentence for a cop killing, as [one of Adams’ attorneys] Edith James suggests. Transcripts of the trial hint at the fact that the prosecution saw Adams as a homosexual. Whether or not this is the case, it seems likely that the police and the prosecution believed that a twenty-eight-year-old drifter was trying to seduce a local boy. They might not be able to prosecute him for sodomy or corruption of a minor, but a murder charge would do. In short, one could imagine The Thin Blue Line as a quite different film, one about an innocent man convicted of murder because the police believed he was gay.
The film touches on issues of feminism and racism, but when it comes to sexual orientation, The Thin Blue Line is silent. There are understandable reasons for this. Morris was trying to free an innocent man accused of murder. Adams’ possible homosexuality is the kind of evidence that would prejudice a jury or the courts. Not central to the question of murder, Adams’ sexual orientation was excluded as inflammatory. In addition, Randall Adams was still in prison when the film was made, a time when inmates identified as homosexuals in many Texas jails and prisons wore specially colored wrist bands and suffered extraordinary abuse as a result. Exploring this issue would have been irresponsible to Adams, but its absence from the film was also convenient, allowing Morris to concentrate on the more eternal verities of dissembling and deception. It allows the film to impact on our understanding of the judicial process and the consequences of the death penalty rather than discrimination against gays. This is only to remind us that The Thin Blue Line, like any film, has limits to what it is able to achieve in meditating on and revealing truth.
– Charles Musser, Film, Truth, Documentary, and the Law: Justice at the Margins, 30 U.S.F.L. Rev. 963, 977-78 (1996)
To be fair, while Morris may have been coy, The Thin Blue Line is not entirely “silent” on these matters. Morris edits the interview segments with Adams describing the night he met Harris with yet another carefully-staged reenactment sequence. This portion of the film begins with Adams’ account of Harris’ “arsenal” in the car and ends with arriving back at his own hotel room to find his brother asleep before the crime occurred. But in between, Morris lets Adams talk while providing the visuals.
According to Adams, he and Harris went to the movies – a double feature at a drive-in. And in what would seem to be extraneous to an analysis of the actual crime, Adams describes the films they saw, while Morris goes through the trouble of tracking down and projecting actual segments from the films as part of the reenactment. “I really didn’t care for the second feature – an R-rated cheerleader thing [The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974)] …” says Adams. We then see a scene from the film involving a date that evolves into B-movie tawdriness between a young man and woman.
Continues Adams, “You know, I told him I wanted to leave. I don’t really care to sit here and watch this. Let’s go. So he’s acting kind of strange because he wanted to watch the end of the movie, anyway …” Morris cuts to an overhead shot of Harris in the drivers’ seat, his hand on his own knee, as Adams lights a match.
In the interview that accompanies the Criterion edition of the film, Morris asserts that he wanted to reverse the purpose of dramatic reenactments – instead of discouraging viewers from using their critical faculties, he wanted to encourage them. He also notes how difficult it was to track down the original drive-in films and have them projected. So while it is true that Morris never expressed a rather important aspect of the potential motivations of Dallas County – and in doing so, overstated, the motivations that are speculated upon in the film – perhaps Morris was trying to tell us what was really happening, albeit in a non-textual way that could not be turned into fodder for the bigots if Adams ever received a retrial.
Where is Teresa Turko?
To be sure, one cannot expect a documentarian to be perfect – there is a limit to what he has to work with. But if that documentarian is going to rely so heavily on open interviews, then the documentary will suffer to the extent that the key parties are not present. In this sense, Morris’ Tabloid (2010) was hampered with a palpable sense of the 800-lb. guerrilla in the room – that is, in a character study centered around an insane love affair, one would like to hear from both lovers. To a lesser extent, The Thin Blue Line suffers from the same issues. Where is Adams’ own brother, Ron Adams, who was in the hotel room with Adams at the time of the murder and who opted not to testify in the trial? Where is prosecutor Doug Mulder, whose tactics included suppression of evidence and use of perjurious testimony, which ultimately contributed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals setting aside Adams’ conviction in 1989?
The most conspicuous absentee of The Thin Blue Line is officer Wood’s partner, Teresa Turko, who was ultimately the only eyewitness to the murder and whose evolving narratives are a key component of Morris’ storytelling.
All parties involved in the film, other than perhaps Adams, seem to be relatively generous to officer Turko. Nonetheless, as a result of that fateful traffic stop, things would have gone very differently if she had stopped sipping her milkshake, followed police procedure, and positioned herself at the rear of the stopped vehicle to back up her partner and take down the license plate number. But she clearly did not. And to make matters worse, in her initial reports made at the scene, she claimed that she did, although quite inexplicably, she couldn’t come up with an actual license plate number and didn’t score a single shot on the suspect’s vehicle as it sped away. Based on a blind confidence in her veracity, the police spun their wheels looking for a make and model of a vehicle based on her description that turned out to be incorrect. Ultimately, the physical evidence of her discarded milkshake directly adjacent to the police cruiser’s passenger door meant that not even the police investigators could buy or sell her story. And after an intense internal affairs investigation (which included a lie detector test that was inconclusive), the testimony she offered at trial had evolved (yes, yes, there were actually two men in the stopped vehicle and the man she purported to see in the driver’s seat had bushy curly hair like Adams, and not like Harris!) While Morris offers us revealing interviews with the four lowest-hanging fruit (Harris, Miller, Miller’s husband, and Michael Randell), as a practical matter, it was probably the testimony of officer Turko, the most credible eyewitness to the crime, that was most responsible for Adams’ conviction, especially since the inconsistent statements in her initial reports were kept form the jury.
In the film, Turko’s version of events is relayed through others and visualized through the reenactments. But we never get to hear Turko speak for herself – the most potent aspect of Morris’ documentaries. Was officer Turko the kind of person who was, when the chips came down, willing to do whatever she could to save her job and her reputation? Was she under post-hypnotic suggestion (a curious rumor mentioned in the film by one of the investigators)? Just how believable was she?
To be fair, Morris has indicated that he interviewed Turko in the course of his investigation, but predictably, she did not want to relive the past. So perhaps any failing lies in Morris’ powers of persuasion.
To that point, however, it is worth noting that The Thin Blue Line concludes with audio of Morris’ last interview with Harris on December 5, 1986, confessing to the crime – albeit with nothing to lose from the confinement of incarceration for another murder. It is no exaggeration to say that Morris’ efforts changed Adams’ fate. But as Morris learned, no good deed goes unpunished, and shortly upon release, Adams and his lawyer promptly sued Morris to reacquire the exclusive rights to tell his life story. After writing his own account of the ordeal (Adams v. State (1992)) and briefly acting as a public opponent against the death penalty, Adams eventually died in obscurity on October 30, 2010. Harris was executed for the 1985 murder on June 30, 2004.
I am still an attorney.