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Randall Adams Trial: 1977

Surprise Witnesses Emerge

Defendant: Randall Dale Adams
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Edith James and Dennis White
Chief Prosecutors: Douglas Mulder, Winfield Scott, and Stephen Tokely
Judge: Donald J. Metcalfe
Place: Dallas, Texas
Dates of Trial: March 28-May 3, 1977
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death

SIGNIFICANCE: The tragedy of Randall Adams, recorded in the movie, The Thin Blue Line, represents a withering indictment of the dangers that accompany overzealous prosecution.

In the early hours of November 29, 1976, police officer Robert Wood was gunned down on a Dallas, Texas, side street by the driver of a blue car. Car and driver made a clean getaway. Three weeks later a 16-year-old petty criminal, David Harris, was arrested in Vidor, Texas, about 250 miles from Dallas, on charges of stealing a blue Mercury Comet. Harris, who had bragged to friends about shooting a Dallas cop, led police to a swamp where they recovered the murder weapon. Harris admitted witnessing the killing but claimed that the gunman was Randall Adams, a 28-year-old hitchhiker he had picked up. Granted immunity from other charges, Harris agreed to testify against Adams.

Going into the trial on March 28, 1977, prosecutor Douglas Mulder had a 100-percent conviction record in capital murder cases. But on this occasion that record looked in serious jeopardy. Harris' disingeniousness under oath posed serious problems, even for someone of Mulder's considerable skill. When defense attorney Dennis White began cross-examination of Harris, he did so incredulously: "Now, after this murder you are saying that the defendant … drove right on home [to his motel] and said forget it?"

"Yes, sir," replied Harris.

"And insofar as you know he went in, went to bed and whatever?"

"Yes, sir."

Shaking his head, White turned to comments Harris made to friends in Vidor. "Is it a fact when the story of the policeman in Dallas came on the television you turned to these people and said, "I wasted that pig'?"

"No, sir."

"What did you say?"

"I told them I was there whenever he got shot, that I did it."

"That you did it?"

"Yes, sir." Earlier, Harris had admitted saying this only to impress his friends: "I thought it was making me big to their standards."

White showed how, prior to the killing, Harris had been on a month-long crime spree and had good reason to shoot Wood. Being caught in possession of a stolen vehicle would have resulted in the revocation of his parole and subsequent return to jail. Adams, by contrast, had no police record whatsoever.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980