DALLAS -- After spending 12 ½ years in a Texas prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Randall Dale Adams spoke out against the system that wrongfully locked him up but found himself haunted by his conviction. Eventually, he moved to a small town where no one knew him and lived out the rest of his days in obscurity.
“He was just trying to earn a living, live a normal life,” attorney Randy Schaffer said of the former client who drew national attention as the subject of the 1988 documentary “The Thin Blue Line.”
Adams did such a good job of disappearing that his Oct. 30 death from a brain tumor didn’t become widely known until Friday, when it was reported by the Dallas Morning News. Schaffer confirmed his former client’s death after speaking to his family. Adams was 61.
Imprisoned for the November 1976 shooting death of Dallas police officer Robert Wood, Adams came within three days of execution in May 1979. The U.S. Supreme Court threw out his death sentence the following year because of jury selection problems at his trial. After the documentary came out, a Texas court overturned his conviction, saying prosecutors suppressed evidence and relied on testimony from witnesses who lied. He was freed in 1989.
Filmmaker Errol Morris said Adams’ conviction was “a terrible miscarriage of justice in Texas” and his exoneration marked a turning point in American law and the beginning of “an awareness of all these problems in the justice system” that the Innocence Project and others now routinely highlight.
“We showed how the system can fail, in what way the system can fail,” Morris said of his award-winning film. “And what is it failing? It’s failing us, our principles of fair play, our sense of justice.”
Adams, who had no previous criminal record, was one of the first Dallas residents exonerated and released from prison. Since then, dozens of men convicted in Texas have been cleared based on DNA evidence.
“Within the context of the modern criminal justice system as we know it, he was the first innocent man, the first death row inmate exonerated based on innocence, even though in the court’s opinion he was exonerated on the state’s use of false testimony,” said Schaffer, who works in Houston.
He also said Adams helped paved the way for a 2009 Texas law that gives exonerees $80,000 for every year they spent in prison, although Adams received no payment himself. At the time, compensation was limited to $25,000 and available only with a governor’s pardon, the attorney said.
After his release, Adams appeared on national talk shows and granted numerous interviews. He later told The Associated Press that he spoke out because “if anything, I’d like the public to realize this could happen to anybody, in any city, given the circumstances.”
Adams had a falling out with Morris after suing to regain the right to tell his own life story in 1989. He then co-wrote a book about his case to help pay some bills.
Adams was still living in Texas and had a job refilling vending machines when his employer did a delayed background check, learned of his wrongful conviction and fired him in front of his colleagues and friends. Schaffer said that devastated Adams, who moved to New York and then to Ohio in an effort to “disappear.”
“He was an ordinary guy placed into extraordinary circumstance,” Schaffer said.
A relative said Adams was diagnosed last year with a brain tumor and told he had two months to live, the attorney said. The prediction was accurate. He died two months later in the city of Washington Court House.
“His family didn’t want any publicity,” Schaffer said.