Crime Film Documentaries

Instructor: James R. Elkins

| fall | 2018 |

"The Thin Blue Line"

[1 hr. 43 mins.] [film by Errol Morris]


"Errol Morris's gripping investigation into the murder of a Dallas police officer was responsible for freeing the man originally--and erroneously--charged with and convicted of the crime. Through archival footage, interviews and stylized reenactments, Morris skillfully makes a case for the innocence of a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Widely acclaimed, this breakthrough documentary captured numerous awards." ~ Netflix





Rotten Tomatoes

Film Trailer

Errol Morris & "The Thin Blue Line"

Commentary on "The Thin Blue Line" as a Documentary Film
[3:52 mins.]

Bill Moyers Interviews Errol Morris on 'The Thin Blue Line'
[13:29 mins.] [Errol Morris tells the story about how he came to make "The Thin Blue Line"]

The Making of "The Thin Blue Line"
[13:03 mins.] Pt2 [9:05 mins.] [Errol Morris talks about making "The Thin Blue Line," the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to die for a murder he did not commit.]

The Ugly Truth about Truth, according to Errol Morris
[3:12 mins.] [PBS News Hour]

Errol Morris Interview
[9:12 min.s] [brief comment on "The Thin Blue Line" begis at 4:04 mins., ends at 5:01 mins.] [commentary on the importance of getting the David Harris interview that we find in the film] [interview focuses more generally on Morris's film, "Taboloid"]

Web Resources

Errol Morris: "Thin Blue Line" Website
[including a transcript of the film]

Randall Adams Settles Suit with Errol Morris Over "The Thin Blue Line"
[New York Times, August 6, 1989]

Wisconsin Documentarian Torn Over Recent Execution of Texas Prisoner
[01:58 :: audio] [Wisconsin Public Radio, Interview, July 9, 2004]

Transcript of the Film

Reviews of "The Thin Blue Line"

Terrence Rafferty
[The New Yorker]

Nate Meyers

Randall Dale Adams & His Case

Randall Dale Adams

Adams & the Death Penalty


Randall Adams, Adams v. Texas (New York: St. Martins Press, 2001)(with William Hoffer & Marilyn Mona Hoffer)

Gary Cartwright, Turn Out the Lights: Chronicles of Texas During the '80 and 90s 144-163 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000) ("The Longest Ride of His Life," Cartwright's chapter on the Randall Dale Adams case was first published in the Texas Monthly, May, 1987)

"Predilitions" (a New Yorker profile of Errol Morris), in Mark Singer, Mr. Personality: Profiles and Talk Pieces from The New Yorker 362-___ (Boston : Mariner Books, 2005) ("Predilictions" appeared in The New Yorker on February 6, 1989) [on-line text]

Renée R. Curry, Errol Morris' Construction of Innocence in The Thin Blue Line, 49 (2) Rocky Mt. Rev. Language & Literature 153 (1995) [available on the JSTOR database]

Charles Musser, Film Truth, Documentary, and the Law: Justice at the Margin, 30 U.S.F. L. Rev. 963 (1996)

Bennett L. Gershman, The Thin Blue Line: Art or Trial in the Fact-Finding Process, 9 Pace L. Rev. 275 (1989) [on-line text]

Fredrik J. Heinemann, Narrative Technique in Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line, 2 (1) EliS_e (2002) [on-line text]

"Oddities and Odyssesus: The Thin Blue Line (1988)," in Richard K. Ferncase, Outsider Features: American Independent Films of the 1980s 103-114 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996)

Richard K. Sherwin, Law Frames: Historical Truth and Narrative Necessity in a Criminal Case, 47 Stanford L. Rev. 38 (1994)

Linda Williams, "Mirrors Without Memories: Truth, History and The Thin Blue Line," in Barry Keith Grant & Jeannette Sloniowski (eds.), Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video 379-396 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998) [on-line text]

Errol Morris & the Jeffrey MacDonald Case

The Controversial Case of Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald
[9:26 mins.] [Rita Braver reports filmmaker Errol Morris's book on the MacDonald case]

Errol Morris on Confirmation Bias
[5:03 mins.] ["we see on the basis of what we believe"]

Recommended Videos Featuring Errol Morris

Recovering Reality: A Conversation with Errol Morris
[6:27 mins.] [a conversation with Errol Morris for the Columbia Journalism Review; commenting on how we "do history"]

Graduation Speaker, 2010, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism
[15:32 mins.] [talking about the nature of journalism; "putting the world back together again to make sense of it"; arguing that all journalism should be investigative journalism; "there is no forumla for pursuing the truth"; interesting references to "The Thin Blue Line"]

Errol Morris--60 Minutes
[13:58 mins.]

Interview: Errol Morris: History as a Crime Scene
[47:12 mins.]

Errol Morris: The Guardian
[8:41 mins.]

Prosecutorial Misconduct: Douglas Mulder

"Both Adams’ defense attorney Edith James (interviewed in "The Thin Blue Line") and filmmaker Errol Morris (interviewed on the ABC News program, Nightline (March 21, 1989)) suggest that the Dallas County prosecutor may have sought to convict Randall Adams of a murder he did not commit primarily because he was old enough to be eligible for the death penalty in Texas, whereas the likely killer, David Harris, was only sixteen years old at the time of the crime and thus too young to be a candidate for execution." ~ Anthony Chase, Avant-Garde, Kitsch and Law, 14 Nova L. Rev. 549 (1989-1990)

"He [the prosecutor] went over my testimony with me, pretty extensively, instructed me how I should testify, et cetera, how I should answer certain questions, things of this nature. That's what you call 'coaching the witness,' you know. Let's get this evidence in the spectrum where it's going to be most effective. At the same time, I didn't really ponder on it, but he was deceiving the jury, see. He wanted to deceive Justice. That's why I think that statute with the scales, Justice… what is she called? I don't know that she called. She's got that blindfold on. We don't see what goes on behind the closed doors." ~ David Harris, in "The Thin Blue Line"

Prosecutors Are Faulted In Dallas Murder Case
[New York Times, March 23, 1989]

Strange Days: Errol Morris gets history right by recognizing that it's usually all wrong
[Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer, February 5, 2004]

Chains of Evidence
[subtitled: "How did Dallas convict so many innocents? With faulty eyewitnesses, sloppy police work and overzealous prosecutors"; Glenna Whitley, Dallas Observer, August 2, 2007]

Surprise Witnesses

"With Mulder unable to shake Adams' assertion that he had left Harris two hours prior to the shooting, acquittal seemed a formality. Then, at the 11th hour, three surprise eyewitnesses came forward. R.L. Miller and his wife, Emily, described driving slowly by and seeing everything. Both identified Adams as the driver of the car. (Significantly, one week later, Mrs. Miller's daughter, due to face armed robbery charges, learned that her case had been quietly dropped.)

Another motorist, Michael Randell, claimed to have seen two people in the car. The passenger was indistinct but he had no trouble recognizing Adams as the driver." ~ Colin Evans, in an entry on the Law Library—American Law and Legal Information website

Executed murderer had official accomplices
[Martin Yant, The Free Press, July 28, 2004]

The Ring of Truth
[Hans Sherrer, Editorial, Justice: Denied: The Magazine for the Wrongly Convicted]

Defense Attorneys: Edith James and Dennis White

"Since his trial I have given up my practice of criminal law. I have not had a jury trial since I heard the verdict of this jury in this case, and don't intend to. I just feel like I'll let other people handle these problems for a while because if justice can miscarry so badly, I'd rather do something else." ~ Dennis White, defense attorney for Randall Dale Adams, in "The Thin Blue Line [Transcript of "The Thin Blue Line"]

An Excursion into the Dark Side of Law & Psychiatry (Dr. James Grigson's Psychiatric Testimony in the Death Penalty Phase of the Trial)

Errol Morris had originally planned to make a documentary on Dr. Death, Dr. James Grigson and it was Grigson, according to Morris, who first told him about the Randall Dale Adams case. Morris dropped his plans to do a film on Dr. Grigson and went on to make "The Thin Blue Line."

"Dr. Grigson interviewed me for 15 minutes. He did not ask about the crime, only about my family. The only other thing he wanted to know was my interpretation of: 'a rolling stone gathers no moss,' and of, 'a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.' At trial he testified for 2 hours—1 ˝ hours about his background, awards, expertise, etc.; ˝ hour about our interview" ~ Randall Dale Adams, in "The Thin Blue Line" [Transcript of "The Thin Blue Line"]

Dr. James Grigson was, according to an article that appeared in the Washington Times, December 20, 2003 announcing Grigson's retirement, involved in 167 capital cases, and in over a 100 of them he testified that the defendant would kill again if given the opportunity.

Upon his retirement, Doug Mulder, the prosecutor in the Randall Dale Adams case threw "a lavish party" for Dr. Grigson at the local country club (again according to the Washington Times article).

The Washington Times article further notes that Dr. Grison was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association in 1995. ["Texas 'Dr. Death' retires after 167 capital case trials," Washington Times, December 21, 2003]

Dr. James Grigson
[Wikipedia]["In Texas, jurors are required to determine 'whether there is a probability that the defendant would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society.' Grigson offered such predictions in at least 124 death penalty cases, 115 of which resulted in death sentences."]

Obituary: Dr. James Grigson
[Dallas Morning News, 2004]

The Future of the Death Penalty in the U.S.: A Texas-Sized Crisis
[Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director Death Penalty Information Center, May 1994]

Psychiatric Testimony & Predications of Dangerousness

Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880 (1983)
[Wikipedia] [Barefoot v. Estelle, Sup.Ct.'s opinion] [Oral Arguments in Barefoot v. Estelle at the Supreme Court]

U.S. Supreme Court Oral Arguments in Estelle v. Smith

Predicting Danger to Other
[excerpted from Jan Pols, The Politics of Mental Illness: Myth and Power in the Work of Thomas S. Szasz]

Mental Health, the Law and Predicting Violence
[John Monahan, professor of law & professor of psychology and psychiatric medicine, University of Virginia Law School] [NPR] [audio file] [April 18, 2007]

David Harris: A Psychopath?

In "The Thin Blue Line," one of Harris's friends, Floyd Jackson, says of David Harris, "He didn't have a conscience. You know, if I do something bad, you know, it kind of gets to me. I feel, you know, ‘shucks, I shouldn't have done that. I feel bad about it.' It didn't bother him."

Psychopathy || Antisocial personality disorder

The Mask of Sanity: An Attempt to Reinterpret the So-Called Psychopathic Personality
[Hervey M. Cleckley, 5th ed., revised, 1984] [PDF file of the book; 485 pages]

Fictional Portrayals of Psychopaths

On Psychopaths

John Batt, The New Outlaw: A Psychological Footnote to the Criminal Law, 52 Ky. L.J. 497 (1963-1964)

_______, Notes from the Penal Colony: A Jurisprudence beyond Good and Evil, 50 Iowa L. Rev. 999 (1964-1965)

[John Batt was the law professor at the University of Kentucky who gave me my first glimpse at crimes, criminals, and criminal law. He encouraged his students to think about the "criminal mind" and the psychology, economics, and politics of crime. Batt was one of the most engaging teachers I've ever encountered. I worked for him as a research assistant when I was a student and we later became close friends. John Batt showed me the way. John died, Tuesday, November 17, 2009 in Lexington, Kentucky.][Obituary]

Legal Proceedings: Randall Dale Adams appealed his conviction for the murder of Robert Wood, the Dallas police office. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the verdict, without a single dissent.

Less than three days before Adams's scheduled execution on May 8, 1979, he received a stay of his execution by Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., acting on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held, in an 8-1 opinion that the jury selection procedure in Adams trial violated Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 US 510 (1968). The case was remanded for further proceedings.

To avoid a new trial, state prosecutors appealed to the governor of Texas to commute Adams's sentence to life in prison. Adams's lawyers sought a new trial, notwithstanding the commutation and lost their appeal in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that affirmed the conviction.

David Harris finally admitted that he, not Randall Dale Adams, had killed Robert Wood. David Harris was executed on June 30, 2004 for the killing of a man named Mark Mays in September, 1985.

On December 2, 1988, Dallas District Court Judge Larry Baraka recommended to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that Adams be granted a new trial. Judge Baraka, less than two months later, on January 30, 1989, requested that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles parole Adams but the Board refused. On March 1, 1989 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled, unanimously, that Adams was entitled to a new trial. Three weeks later, he was released from prison, and on March 23, 1989, Dallas District Attorney John Vance dropped the charges against Adams.

Randal Adams Case: Judicial Opinions

Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38 (1980)
[Wikipedia] [on-line text of the Supreme Court's opinion]

Ex parte Adams, 768 S.W.2d 281 (Tex. Crim App. 1989)
[on-line text]

Errol Morris (Documentary Film Maker)


Errol Morris: The Thinking Man's Detective
[Smithsonian magazine, March 2012]

Play It Again, Sam (Re-enactments, Part One)--Errol Morris Pt2
[New York Times blog]

Werner Herzog in Conversation with Errol Morris
[Believer, 2008]

Videos Featuring Errol Morris

Errol Morris in Conversation with Adam Curtis
[12:47 mins.] [British Academy of Film and Television Arts]

Errol Morris in Conversation with David Edelstein
[18:17 mins.] [New York Documentary Film Festival]

Errol Morris Interviewed by Scott Feinberg
[1:13:42 mins.]

NY Times Interview
[57:33 mins.] [2012] [The Morris interview begins at 2:26 mins.] [Morris comments on the making of "The Thin Blue Line" at 13:36 mins., ends at 14:44 mins.]

Werner Herzog & Errol Morris Conversation
[12:59 mins.] [Toronto Film Festival, September 13, 2010] Pt2 [14:55 mins.] Pt3 [13:40 mins.] Pt4 [11:06 mins.] Pt5 [7:35 mins.]

Werner Herzog & Errol Morris at TIFF 2010
[55:59 mins.]

Short Film about Movies by Errol Morris

Q&A with Errol Morris, "Gates of Heaven"

Errol Morris on Late Night, May 13, 1982
[11:07 mins.]

Masterclass | Errol Morris
[1:29:20 mins.] [2016]

The B Side, Errol Morris
[36:59 mins.] [2017]

Errol Morris on Ebert & Siskel
[2:03 mins.]

Errol Morris ("Standard Operating Procedures")

Errol Morris Talks to Time
[6:32 mins.] [talks about his film, " Standard Operating Procedures," and the stories behind the photos taken at Abu Ghraib]

Errol Morris Interview with Tom Ryan

Errol Morris on QTV

Errol Morris ("Fog of War")

Errol Morris: History as a Crime Scene
[47:12 mins.]

Errol Morris ("Tabloid")

Errol Morris: ReThinkInterview
[8:31 mins.]

Errol Morris: Tabloid
[31:54 mins.]

Errol Morris Q&A for "Tabloid"
[15:01 mins.] [Toronto Film Festival, 2010]

Errol Morris Talks to Roger Ebert Pt2 Pt3 Pt4 Pt5 Pt6 Pt7 Pt8

"Tabloid," Director Errol Morris
[31:54 mins.] [comments on becoming more prolific as a writer]

Errol Morris ("The Unknown Known")

Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld: 'One of the strangest interviews I've ever done'
[4:11 mins.]

Why Would Rumsfeld Participate in "The Unknown Known"
[3:21mins.] [with Indiewire's Dana Harris]

Intro by Errol Morris for "The Unknown Known"
[6:59 mins.] [Morris commenting on his induction into the Badass Hall of Fame]

Errol Morris premieres "The Unknown Known" at NY Documentary Film Festival
[13:13 mins.] [the film is made from 30 hours of interviews over 11 days]

Errol Morris with David Poland
[37:01 mins.]

Errol Morris on "The Unknown Known" (2014)
[47:58 mins.] [interviewed by Reihan Salam]

Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, and Evidence-Based Journalism
[41:29 mins.] [Reason TV, interview by Nick Gillespe]

Post-Screening Discussion of "The Unknown Known"
[1:00:38 mins.] [Mahindra Humanities Center, Harvard University]

Errol Morris ("Wormwood")

Wormwood--Errol Morris
[36:59 mins.] [2017] [presenting the notion that "Wormwood" is his best work, and is a "new way of telling stories"]

Errol Morris ("Gates of Heaven")

Q&A with Errol Morris, "Gates of Heaven"
[35:49 mins.]


Errol Morris Interviews Mob Lawyer Murray Richman
[9:57 mins.] Pt2 [9:32 mins.] Pt3 [9:18 mins.]