Errol Morris crafts a striking documentary over one police investigation that may have led to the conviction of an innocent man. An investigation into the murder of police officer Robert Wood and the conviction of Randall Dale Adams, Morris builds a film from interviews, evidence and reenactments to display a case that Adams may be innocent. The film is objective, voices from both sides are heard but the police investigation and origins of evidence do suggest prosecutorial misconduct.
Morris’s access is wide, interviews with key witnesses, attorneys, the judge and the man himself, Randall Dale Adams. Adams recounts the events with impressive detail, he’s not trying to sell Morris that he’s innocent, he knows he’s innocent and states it as fact. He remembers times, details, gives a coherent time line of his whereabouts at the time of the murder. Adams was with a man named David Harris, and the film suggests with very compelling evidence that Harris was the real killer. The film also has Harris appear along with a detective who had spent many years of his career investigating crimes Harris had committed, before and after the murder of Robert Wood.
The Thin Blue Line refers to how law enforcement separates society from criminals so when a police officer is killed, people need to know that law enforcement isn’t diminished. Lawyers suggest that Adams was chosen as the killer because he would be able to given the death penalty, Adams reflects on how the prosecution talked on how they would kill him not prosecute him. It’s disturbing how it seems police officers and lawyers becomes so driven in the pursuit of what they believe is the truth that they do whatever they can to prove it. There is no concrete evidence against Randall Adams, just the testimony of unreliable witnesses.
Recreation of events in a documentary is pioneered by Morris in this film. He recreates the murder of Robert Wood over and over, showing how there is no consistent account of what happened. Wood’s partner is unclear on what she was doing when he was shot, did she actually see the shooter? She didn’t see the plate and misidentified the car. Every recreation shows how the prosecution would find the stories that suited them even if they were fictional. It’s very clear that the witnesses are probably perjuring themselves, they’re unclear on details, struggling to remember what they saw. The most coherent speaker of the events of the case are Adams and becomes clear he wasn’t even in the car.
The conviction of innocent people is something that happens in America more often than it should (it shouldn’t happen at all). Morris’s film shows how messed up the system has become against people, you get angry watching this film, seeing how the system failed. David Harris wasn’t convicted on this crime and he went on to commit robberies, assaults and eventually murder. A psychologist for the prosecution who spent 15 minutes with Randall Adams testifies that Adams would be a danger to society if released despite no criminal record but the police let Harris go, to convict an innocent man.
Morris’s direction of a true crime film changes the genre, his distinctive style can be seen in films following, especially Netflix’s Making a Murderer series. The Thin Blue Side shows the dark side to the justice system of the free world, making you question your trust of the police. The case may be over forty years old but we all know that there are probably thousands or more stories just like it.