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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: crime, capital punishment, determinism

CHARACTERS: Randall Adams (Man in prison accused of murdering a police officer), David Harris (Man who murdered police officer and then testifies that Adams had done it, also prisoner on death row), Edith James (defense attorney for Randall Adams), various police officers, witnesses, and others.

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ERROL MORRIS: Gates of Heaven (1978), Vernon, Florida (1981), A Brief History of Time (1992), Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. (1999), The Fog of War (2003).

SYNOPSIS: This documentary, directed by Errol Morris, depicts the murder of a Dallas police officer and the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Randall Adams for this crime. The film alternates between interviews and re-enactments of the murder. The interviews are with Randall Adams, David Harris, Dallas police officers, Adams' defense team, witnesses of the murder, and others. As the film unfolds, it presents the audience with the testimonies and the evidence that put Randall Adams behind bars. However, doubt concerning Adams' guilt grows as the film progresses until it builds to a chilling conclusion. This film, released in 1988 was instrumental in getting Randall Adams released from prison in 1989, after he had served 12 years of a life sentence. This film made Errol Morris a famous name in the documentary genre and the film won many awards. Websites of relevance: and recent information on Randall Dale Adams: Also Randall Adams' book: Adams vs. Texas, 1991.


1. The term “thin blue line” refers to the idea that police officers (in their blue uniforms) are the only barrier between brutal anarchy and a civilized society. Why did Errol Morris choose "The Thin Blue Line" as the title of his film?

2. In the opening credits of the film, the title appears and the word "Blue" turns red. What’s the significance of this?

3. Dr. Grigson's (aka Dr. Death) did some tests on Randall Adams to see if he would kill again, these tests included copying a drawing and interpreting common sayings. Can these "psychological" tests really tell us much about a person's future actions? Can anything accurately predict a person's future?

4. It is clear that director Errol Morris's documentary style is very different from the approaches of other filmmakers like Michael Moore. Many think that Moore tries to play too much on audiences' emotions. Did Morris do this in the film?

5. Randall Adams explained that he and David Harris attended a drive-in movie and the films were soft-core erotic movies. Adams didn't care for these and wanted to leave. Harris, however, wanted to stay. Some have claimed that there is a connection between viewing erotic/pornographic films and committing violent crimes. Considering the murders that Harris would go on to commit (including one that very night), is there a connection between viewing erotic/pornographic films and violence? If it is the case that viewing this material does in fact cause violence in a person, what is a possible explanation of this?

6. One of David's friends, Floyd Jackson, said regarding David Harris: "He didn't have a conscience. You know, if I do something bad, you know, it kind if gets to me. I feel, you know, 'Shucks, I shouldn't have done that. I feel bad about it.' It didn't bother him." It seems that David Harris either "numbed" his conscience by doing bad things, or he just naturally had a "numbed" conscience. Which do you think is the case and why?

7. Adams states early in the film: "I get up. I got to work on Saturday. You know, why did I meet this kid? I don't know. Why did I run out of gas at that time? I don't know. But it happened. It happened." Adams also said in his book, Adams vs. Texas: "Dallas seemed to welcome us with open arms. Whether by happenstance or destiny, we had found a new home". Do the events in the movie seem to be better explained by chance or by determinism? Which do you think Adams believes?

8. In a lecture at Harvard, Errol Morris said of meeting Randall Adams: "He interested me just because he seemed odd. He had a singsong way of talking, as if he was convinced that no one really was listening to anything he had to say, that he was going through some kind of formal recitation that he felt compelled to go through again and again and again and again. Even though he knew - somehow he knew - that it would fall on deaf ears." Did you feel this way about Adams while watching the movie? Considering all that Adams went through, is this surprising?

9. Emily Miller, the female witness, claimed that she really "liked to help." Apparently, her opinion of being a helpful witness was making sure that Adams was convicted not that he was given a fair trial and considered "innocent until proven guilty." Why might her view of "helping" be the former and not the latter?

10. David Harris stated that: "Criminals always lie." Consider that at the time of Adams trial, Harris was on probation and accused of several other crimes, should that have affected the way the court received his testimony? The same could be said for Emily Miller, who lied about having a job when in fact she had been fired from it for stealing. What factors make some testimonies more reliable than others?

11. The District Attorney that prosecuted Randall Adams, Doug Mulder, said that the police are "the thin blue line that separates the public from anarchy." This seems to represent a "pessimistic" view of human nature, that people are truly evil and need laws and rulers to keep the peace. Is this an accurate view of human nature?

12. Emily Miller said: "I'm always looking because I never know what might come up. Or how I could help. I like to help in situations like that. I really do. It's always happening to me, everywhere I go, you know, lot of times there's killing or anything, even around my house. Wherever. And I'm always looking or getting involved, you know, find out who did it, or what's going on." Do these things are really "always happen" to her, and, if not, why would she say it does?

13. One issue that comes up several times in the film is self-deception. The two groups who seemed to be the most self-deceived were the Dallas police and the three drive-by witnesses. What were possible motives for these different groups to convince themselves to believe things that there was very little reason to believe?

14. Judge Metcalf stated the following concerning the fact that the Federal Supreme Court reversed the case: "When the Appellate Court reverses a case, they are never saying the trial judge was right or wrong. They are saying they disagree with the judge. You can't for instance, in the Adams appeal, say the appellate courts were saying I was right or I was wrong." Is there a difference between disagreeing with someone and saying that they are wrong?

15. It is possible that since this was the murder of a police officer that somehow Adams' conviction and trial were unfair because of added emotion to the case. How would the entire scenario been different had the victim been a gas station attendant? Should there be a difference between the murder of a police officer and the murder of anyone else?

16. It was said in the movie that a "great prosecutor" could convict an innocent man. Considering this, does that make Doug Mulder's perfect record impressive or frightening?

17. Michael Randell, one of the witnesses, claimed: "They already decided what to do with you in the hall. That's why they call it the Hall of Justice --- the scales are not balanced. The scales are in the hall, and they go up and down. They might go up for you in favor one way and they might go down against you. So if the DA wants you to hang 15 or 20 years, you hung." This film may cause many people to become skeptical of the American justice system. Is there truth to this quote? Do you think Randall Adams' case is a fluke or does this sort of injustice occur regularly in America?

18. The film ended with the eerie tape recorded conversation between Errol Morris and David Harris in which Harris stated: "I've always thought if you could say why there's a reason Randall Adams is in jail, it might be because the fact that he didn't have no place for somebody to stay that helped him that night...landed him where's he's at...That might be the reason. That might be the only, total reason why he's where he's at today." What are some other possible reasons that may have put Adams in prison?

Author: Gavin Breeden
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