Adams v. The Death Penalty

Columbus native Randall Dale Adams has a lot in common with John W. Byrd.

November 15, 2001

Like Byrd, Adams once was vilified by prosecutors as the lowest form of life. Like Byrd, Adams once came within hours of being executed before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay. Like Byrd, Adams claimed throughout his years in prison that he didn’t commit the murder for which he was almost executed.

Adams’ case was also different in two respects. For one thing, Adams insisted he wasn’t even present when the murder of a Dallas police officer for which he was convicted took place. Byrd admits he was present for the 1983 murder of Cincinnati store clerk Monte Tewksbury. But Byrd claims accomplice John Brewer fatally stabbed Tewksbury—which Brewer admits is true.

The other big difference is that Adams’ case was turned into an international cause célèbre by Errol Morris’ stunning documentary The Thin Blue Line, which ended with the confession by the police officer’s true killer.

Adams enjoyed a whirlwind of publicity after his release in 1989 and the publication of his book, Adams v. Texas. Then Adams tried to settle down to a normal life in Grove City. It wasn’t easy.

“I wanted to pick up where I’d left off, but I realized pretty quick that I was kidding myself,” Adams told Texas Monthly recently. “Everything was different. I’m still catching up.”

By the mid-1990s Adams took a factory job and dropped out of sight. “I wanted to be Randy Adams again, not Randall Dale Adams,” he told Texas Monthly. But after several years of trying to ignore the past, Adams decided he still had a duty to talk about it.

Despite his dislike for Texas, Adams accepted an invitation to return there in 1998 to speak out against the death penalty at several rallies across the state. Along the way, an anti-death penalty activist named Jill caught his eye. Three weeks later, Adams packed up his car in Grove City and drove to Houston. He and Jill were married a short time later.

Adams has since become a passionate advocate for a moratorium on the death penalty in Texas.

“The man you see before you is here by the grace of God,” Adams said at a legislative hearing earlier this year. “The fact that it took 12 and a half years and a movie to prove my innocence should scare the hell out of everyone in this room, and if it doesn’t, then that scares the hell out of me.”

Adams doesn’t blame the people who caused his wrongful conviction as much as he does the system of which they were part.

“Our criminal justice system, on paper, is the best in the world,” Adams told Texas Monthly. “But we’re human, and so we make mistakes. If you execute and execute and execute, at some point you will execute an innocent man.”

That belief is another thing Adams and John W. Byrd have in common.

—Martin Yant

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