The Thin Blue Line and the Ambiguous Truth
In his 1988 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris explores the 1976 murder case of police officer Robert Wood and the man convicted for the murder, Randall Dale Adams. Having originally stumbled upon the subject, Morris chose to make the documentary after “he became personally persuaded of the convicted man’s innocence” (Curry 157). In Morris’ presentation of the case, the director refutes the original verdict and persuades audiences that Adams is innocent. In Bennett L. Gershman’s article “The Thin Blue Line: Art or Trial in the Fact-Finding Process?” the author argues that at the conclusion of the movie, “the film has convinced [the audience] that we know the better ‘truth’ about the case and Adams’ innocence” (316). This “truth” revealed by the end of the film is simply Morris’ interpretation and presentation of the events, yet, he successfully convinces audience members to believe him. By doing so, Morris shows that audiences are just as willing to accept his construction of Adams’ innocence, as jurors were willing to accept the prosecutions’ construction of Adams’ guilt. Ultimately The Thin Blue Line makes us recognize that the truth is difficult to ascertain and we simply cannot blindly accept what is presented to us as the truth as has previously been done with the prosecution’s and Morris’ versions of the murder case.
On many occasions in the film, Morris voices his unyielding belief that the prosecution “concocted evidence by editing testimony, suppressing significant documents; really manufacturing a case that didn’t exist” (Bates 16). Morris firmly believes that Adams was unfairly represented as “a hitchhiker, a drifter up to no good, who smoked marijuana…drank…beer” and who took a sixteen-year-old David Harris to a soft-porn film and back to his motel room (Sherwin 48). On top of the prosecution’s undesirable portrayal of Adams, there were no witnesses for the defense whereas the prosecution had multiple. Furthermore, information on Harris’ dubious past was ignored in court and unreliable witness testimony marred the trial. By exposing the many facets that composed this mistrial, “Morris makes it clear that Randall Adams was constructed for the prosecution before they ever investigated him. [Adams] sounded like exactly what [the prosecution] needed, and so they pursued him as a perfect fit” (Currsy 163).
The first step Morris takes towards clearing Randall Adams’ name is in introducing Adams to audiences in a radically different way than the prosecution did. Morris begins the film by splicing together interviews with Adams and the other suspect, David Harris, in which the two detail the events that led up to the murder. After these brief interview clips, Morris stages a highly unrealistic film noir-like reenactment of Officer Wood’s murder and then edits in a montage of newspaper clippings of phrases such as “Officer’s Killer Sought,” “12:30 a.m.,” and “stopped” (Curry 163). The reenactment and the montage do not place any one person as perpetrator of the crime and it is only after these early interviews, the reenactment, and the montage that we learn that Randall Adams was charged with the crime; even then, Morris never proclaims Adams as guilty. On the other hand, in the courts, the judge and the jurors were first introduced to Randall Adams as a suspected cop-killer. Once “the…image of him shooting Robert Wood [became] lodged in the minds of the Dallas police,” Adams lived in the minds of “cops, judges, juries, lawyers, newspaper readers, Errol Morris, audiences watching this movie – all of us” as a wicked cop murderer (Rafferty). While the prosecution was quick to portray Adams as a vile murderer from the beginning, Morris chose to wait, finally showing audiences that Adams was arrested for the murder six minutes into the film. By not instantly portraying Adams as a murderer as the prosecution had done, Morris eliminates the instant associative stigma that audiences might attribute to Adams for being a slayer of an officer.
Not only does Morris introduce Adams more favorably than the prosecution, but he also makes the witnesses paramount to Adam’s conviction appear unreliable and over zealous. One such example is Morris’ interview with key witness for the prosecution, Emily Miller. Preceding her interview, the audience learns that Miller was a surprise witness who, during the trial, dramatically waved her finger at Adams and declared him guilty. Morris also includes Randall Adams’ defense attorney, Edith James, asserting, “She’s the one that got him convicted” (Morris, Thin). To undermine Miller and her testimony, Morris makes sequencing and editing decisions that make Miller seem unreliable and unbelievable. In her interview, Miller admits to being obsessed with detective shows and dreaming of being one as a child. Throughout the interview, Morris plays typical murder-mystery show music that has a circus-sounding childish quality to it and he overlays footage from Boston Blackie to mock Miller and the whole circus-like nature of the trial. Morris further invalidates Miller’s testimony by including an interview with an acquaintance of Miller who asserts that Miller, “had never told the truth in her life” (Morris, Thin). By framing Miller with juvenile music and silly clips from Boston Blackie and by placing Miller’s interview between interviews of people who demean her, Morris engages in a form of reality-making, similar to what the prosecutors did in court. Morris effectively makes Miller appear nosey and suspect: someone the jurors should have never believed. While the prosecution uses language and suspect testimony to persuade the jurors of Adams’ guilt, Morris uses film and its devices to influence his audience of Adam’s innocence and Miller’s incompetence. In the course of The Thin Blue Line, Morris also discredits the witness testimony of Michael Randell, Robert Miller, and Officer Teresa Turko, and questions the decision making of Judge Don Metcalfe in similar ways. However, Morris never makes a member of the defense appear suspect or incompetent; it is no coincidence Morris belittled only those who were key to Adams’ conviction.
Morris also highlights the ambiguity of the court case by constantly employing distorted and murky reenactments that supplement the various accounts of Officer Wood’s murder. What makes these scenes so abnormal is that such thematic devices rarely occur in documentary film (Curry 154). Morris takes liberties with documentary form by using these unrealistic, yet highly stylized and visually captivating, film noir-like scenes. According to Morris himself, “the reenactments are designed to facilitate that process of going back there in the mind” of the interviewees and to “take people deeper and deeper into the ambiguities of the case, not to show what really happened” (Meyer 54; O’Connor). Each reenactment is a little bit different and details such as the car’s manufacturer or license plate number changes ever so slightly. To Morris, “reconstructing the past with re-enactments” also serves to show “the nature of competing and conflicting evidence” and Morris’ successfully employs these reenactments and their constantly changing reality to argue that “we cannot [truly] know what happened” at the traffic stop in 1976 with the existing and public evidence (Morris, “Opinionator”; Gershman 315). While these “re-enactments never purport to be revealing the truth,” they make audiences think, against all reason, that one more detail, a different angle of vision, will suddenly reveal the truth, “making “us all obsessed detectives”; in essence, putting us in the jurors’ place (O’Connor; Rafferty).
In a way, these reenactments and interviews make the audience one of the jurors as they attempt to piece together the case from the various filmed testimonies. Audiences can plainly see how difficult the task of discerning the truth is; it is hard to know who to believe and who is reputable. Morris helps us sort through the testimonies, however is Morris himself trustworthy? Ultimately yes. While it is true that Morris is actively trying to construct Adams as innocent and is by no means impartial, he did find the defendant truly innocent. In an interview with Cineaste, Morris explained that “most of the people in jail are guilty,” and after interviewing thirty-five inmates on death row, he believed, “they were all guilty – with the exception of Randall Adams” (Bates 17). Clearly Morris did not act with self-indulgence, taking on the case of a truly guilty person to see if he had the ability to persuade audiences that the guilty person was innocent. Rather, Morris was genuinely interested in exposing the mistrial and chose film as his medium of exposure. Morris argues that even though he used film, the story of Randall Adams’ mistrial should not be treated any less seriously as just ''because a film is put together in one way rather than another doesn't make it any more or any less true” (O’Connor). However, even though Morris seems to defend the choice of film, he too recognizes the pitfalls of the medium such as the fact that truth cannot accurately be depicted with film either.
As Errol Morris actively works towards revealing Adams’ innocence, his version of the truth as portrayed in The Thin Blue Line is still not totally accurate. Morris spent three years researching The Thin Blue Line, talking to over 200 people and interviewing 24 people including, “cops, judges, the district attorney, the defendant, and three surprise eyewitnesses to the murder,” and obviously not everything he found made its way into the film (Dailey). One of the strangely omitted interviews is with District Attorney Doug Mulder who was highly influential in the conviction of Adams. In an interview with Cineaste, Morris claims to have left out the interview because it was “boring”; Mulder was “non-responsive,” refusing “to speak of the details of the case” (Bates 16). Morris also left unanswered questions at the conclusion of the film including whether Randall Adams had ulterior motives behind spending the whole day with underage David Harris. While these are not central to the main question of Adams’ innocence, they are certain to resonate in audiences’ minds and it is curious that they are not further explored. The fact that these questions are left unanswered strengthens Morris argument that the truth is hard to decipher. Morris has said that ''I wanted to make a movie about how truth is difficult to know…not how it's impossible to know'' and by not including everything in his film he is showing how complicated it can be to know the whole truth (O’Connor). By leaving unanswered questions, Morris shows that every story is a construction, whether it is the prosecution’s interpretation of the events or that of The Thin Blue Line.
To better understand how one’s perception is affected by the way a story is told, it is essential to explore Richard K. Sherwin’s article “Law Frames: Historical Truth and Narrative Necessity in a Criminal Case.” In his article, Sherwin presents the concept of mental constructs known as “schemas” and “scripts.” When Sherwin writes of “schemas,” he means a construct that “acts like a familiar story that we carry around in our heads asking for completion” (95). In other words, the schema makes sense of the given information and takes it furthers, completing the rest of the picture. The “script,” on the other hand, is the mental construct that tells us how familiar scenarios play out. For example, when we hear of somebody going to get a haircut, we envision how that scenario transpires and what events occur. Scripts also enable us to make the unfamiliar seem familiar as, “we tend to distort things in the direction of the familiar” (Sherwin 95). However, schemas and scripts can lead to incorrect understandings of the actual truth.
By examining mental constructs such as schemas and scripts, it is possible to see how different presentations of the same story can beget radically different interpretations. It is logical that jurors would find Adams guilty after being told a story of a “drifter” hitchhiker that took a sixteen-year-old boy to soft-porn movies. Conversely, Morris persuades his that Adams is innocent after telling a story of an overeager prosecution, unreliable witnesses, a delinquent David Harris, and of a poor Randall Adams who was caught up in everything. In contrasting the story told by the prosecution to his own version of the case, Morris shows how subconscious mental constructs “predispose us to play out certain scripts, schemata, and stereotypes” when interpreting any story (Sherwin 54). The way stories are presented and the subconscious schemata and scripts everyone carries in their heads strongly affect perception, so it is logical that jurors would deem Adams guilty because of how the prosecution framed the case and it is logical that audiences would find Adams innocent because of how Morris framed the case. Even though Morris is calling attention to the existence of these prejudices, he is also presenting his own carefully crafted version of the Adams case. By doing so Morris wants his audience to understand that these mental constructs exist while simultaneously appealing to these same constructs.
When The Thin Blue Line comes to an end, audiences are quick to believe Morris’ version of the case and his argument for Adams’ innocence. However, when the movie was released, Adams was not yet exonerated; even though Morris successfully argued his case, Adams remained behind bars and nothing had changed. While Morris made audiences became certain they “know the better ‘truth,” they wondered if the law would let Adams free (Gershman 316). It should unsettle audiences that even after Morris “proved” Adams to be innocent, Adams remained jailed, making the audience think that this construction of guilt could happen to anybody. Audiences are also left wondering if Adams is truly innocent or, “whether we are not accomplices in a form of realitymaking that let the Adams frameup occur in the first place and that could let similar frameups occur in the future” (Sherwin 42). Audiences were just as fast to accept the clean and tidy conclusion that Adams was innocent, just as jurors quickly accepted the conclusion of Adam’s guilt. Since the release of the film, Randall Adams has been exonerated and David Harris has all but confessed to the murder. Yet, there are still many unanswered questions and we may never know the ‘truth.’ Once again, we are reminded that truth is difficult to ascertain and at times we choose to give in and reach for the simple conclusion. If we continue believing that the truth is always so clear-cut, succumbing to the influence of scripts and schemas, and blindly accepting what we have been told, we may once again partake in a similar form of reality making.
Bates, Peter. “Truth Not Guaranteed: An Interview With Errol Morris.” Cineaste 17.1 (1989): 16 – 17.
Curry, Renée R. “Errol Morris’ Construction of Innocence in ‘The Thin Blue Line.’ Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 49.2 (1995): 153 – 167.
Dailey, Martha Sherrill. “One Man's Murder, One Man's Nightmare; Filmmaker Errol Morris, Mesmerized by a Real Whodunit.” The Washington Post. LexisNexis, 2 Sept. 1988, final ed.: D1. Web. 3 March 2011
Gershman, Bennett L. “The Thin Blue Line: Art or Trial in the Fact-Finding Process?” Pace Law Review 9 (1989): 275 – 317.
Meyer, Micheal. “Recovering Reality: Errol Morris takes on the Abu Ghraib.” Columbia
Journalism Review 46.6 (Mar/Apr 2008): 53 – 55.
Morris, Errol. Thin Blue Line. Final Script. 1998. Errol Morris. 17 August 2001. <http://www.errolmorris.com/film/tbl_transcript.html>
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O’Connor, John. “The Film That Challenged ‘Dr. Death.” The New York Times. LexisNexis, 24 May 1989, late ed.: C22. Web. 3 March 2011
Rafferty, Terrence. “True Detective.” The New Yorker 5 September 1988. Errol Morris, 16 November 2009. Web. 9 March 2011.
Sherwin, Richard K. “Law Frames: Historical Truth and Narrative Necessity in a Criminal Case.” Stanford Law Review 47.1 (Nov., 1994): 39 - 55.
The Thin Blue Line. Dir. Errol Morris. Miramax Films, 1988. Netflix. Web. 1 March. 2011.