The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Directed by Errol Morris

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The Thin Blue Line is a documentary about the murder of a Dallas police officer and the wrongful conviction of Randall Adams for that murder.  Like Errol Morris’ previous two documentaries (which I adore), there is no narration, even though this is one of those true crime stories that have become so popular today and which often necessitate a singular voice to guide us through the various complications and screw ups that end up with an innocent man behind barbs.

This is a documentary like Making a Murderer or Serial, but unlike those two stories, Errol Morris has been pretty open about knowing that Randall Adams was innocent.  He made the documentary because he was so sure this man didn’t commit the murder.  In other documentaries, the voice behind the documentary will often say that they aren’t taking sides, just presenting the case as they saw it.  This is a way of distancing themselves from the crime and from the possibility that they’re wrong.  Morris doesn’t do this because he doesn’t need to.  He’s so sure Adams is not guilty, and he doesn’t lend his voice to the documentary, rather letting the people involved speak for themselves.  These people range from the prosecution to the defense and include suspicious witnesses as well as the man who actually did commit the murder.

The story is told through these talking head segments, lit and staged like in previous Morris documentaries, with the subjects talking almost right to the camera and framed so that we get a sense of their world.  Randall Adams wears his white prison uniform and is seated inside the prison while the prosecutor sits in an office skyscraper with a view of downtown Dallas behind him.  We get a sense of who these people are and what they represent just by what we see onscreen.

In between these talking heads, Morris recreates the crime in question, filming it from many different angles, often with close ups and slow motion.  Each time we receive new information or a new perspective of the murder, he will stage the crime to reflect that point of view.  That means that the first time we see this recreation, there is only the murdered cop and the close ups of the gun.  In later iterations we will see a silhouette of a man in the car as well as the POV of a second cop or the two cars that drive by before the shooting.  Our vision of the crime unfolds like it would for an investigating detective, growing with each new piece of information.

The murder took place when a car was pulled over outside a gas station.  Police officer Robert Wood did not realize the vehicle was stolen, and as he approached the vehicle he was quickly and brutally shot four times before the car sped off.  There was a second officer, Teresa Turko, who wasn’t following protocol and thus set the investigation behind.

Turko should have flanked the vehicle on the side opposite Wood, but she remained in the car drinking a milkshake (which she dramatically cast aside after the gunshots, at least in the staged recreations of the crime).  Because of this she did not see or recall the car license plate and misremembered the model of the car, leading the investigation on a wild goose chase for a few weeks.

This investigation would eventually lead to Randall’s arrest, but there was never any hard evidence, only witness testimony starting with Turko.  As one interviewee said, they put more weight on her testimony, believing that because she’s a cop her recollection would be more trustworthy.

Morris presents the prosecution and the investigation as flawed from the start.  It was  the assumptions and faulty eyewitness testimony that landed Randall behind bars.  Morris interviews the other witnesses to the crime, but we can see clearly how biased or suspect their testimony is.  One claims to have seen Randall, but she comes across as a strangely vengeful character, one who is obsessed with crime in general.  Another woman will tell Morris’ camera that this witness does nothing but lie.

What must’ve frustrated Morris about the case most of all was that they swiftly cast aside the clear suspect, the man who did in fact murder Officer Wood, David Harris.  Harris was a 16 year old kid who stole the car and went around town bragging to his friends that he shot a cop.  When Harris was arrested for the car theft, he claimed that the bragging was just for show and that he didn’t really shoot the cop.  The police trusted him for some reason, despite his long criminal history and the theft of the car.  It’s fairly cut and dry, it seems, and yet they were inclined to side with the kid.

Where does Randall come into play?  Well before the shooting, he came across Randall walking by the road and gave him a lift.  They drank a little, smoked some weed and then saw a move at a drive in theater before Randall went home where he was staying with his brother (who was asleep when he arrived).  It wasn’t until a couple hours later that the cops stopped Harris’ car.

Because of Officer Turko’s poor recollection of the car, Harris wasn’t arrested until weeks later.  When he was picked up, he claimed Randall was the shooter, and in a recording which ends the film, Harris admits that he blamed Randall just because he was a scared sixteen year old kid.

Harris would go on to kill another man and commit a series of other crimes.  He was already imprisoned, on death row, when Morris interviewed him, and he would be executed in 2004.  Though he instigates what happens here, the real fault, as Morris presents it, lies with the police.  They didn’t follow protocol when approaching the vehicle, had no evidence to go off of and so were getting a little desperate as time went on, leading them to act irrationally.  As one of the interview subjects noted, no murder of a police officer in Dallas had ever gone unsolved.  It simply wouldn’t look good if Officer Wood’s murder was left a mystery.  Because of this they were strangely willing to run with any information they got their hands on, specifically the words of David Harris.

It’s pretty insane that Randall was arrested for the murder and that, since he was not the murderer, multiple witnesses would testify that he was.  What is it that compels people to act on such misinformation and with such conviction?  Beyond the fact that our memories can be misinterpreted and misleading, what is it about these characters that made them so rash and at times vengeful?

After Randall is convicted of murder, he is visited by a psychiatrist to help determine whether he has any remorse for the crime, influencing whether he’s sentenced to life in prison or the death penalty.  This psychiatrist is James Grigson, nicknamed Dr. Death because he almost always pushes for the death penalty, as he did with Randall Adams.  Grigson was the initial subject of Morris’ documentary, and he’s one of the most vile characters in this story.

In an interview about the film, Errol Morris discusses the bloodlust people get when dealing with a crime of this nature and the death penalty.  He’s against the death penalty and believes, understandably, that it encourages that bloodlust within people, affecting their memories and motivations.  We see this in the psychiatrist, the witnesses and certainly in the prosecution.  It’s all more than a little disturbing.

The Thin Blue Line eventually led to Randall Adams’ release after twelve years in prison.

Up Next: Stalag 17 (1953), Straw Dogs (1971), Out of Sight (1988)

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