because I think it's a very important story here.
One thing of course, that is very important is that when Adams was convicted of a murder he didn't commit and Harris was let go because of his age -- he was only 16 years at the time -- not only was an innocent man almost executed, but the guilty man was set free so that he could commit many, many more acts of terrible violence. In a way, the death penalty contributed, and contributed in a manner that could not have really been predicted in creating many, many, deaths.
It's a very odd and very interesting story. Maybe it's come full circle. Dr. (James) Grigson died just a couple of weeks ago, and now Harris died this week.
Bull: That's an interesting closure, to have both of those deaths so close together.
Morris: Yeah. (Laughs) And then someone sent me an email, and said, "Well you know, this is an example of two movies colliding. You made a movie about Fred Leuchter, who invented the lethal injection system, which was of course, used to kill Mr. Harris."
Bull: That's grim, that's very grim.
Morris: Maybe I find myself in odd places.
Bull: But it's an interesting life, and I'm sure that's a rewarding position in some ways for a person who makes films such as yourself.
Morris: I've been fortunate, I've......through luck, serendipity, whatever, stumbled on many, many truly interesting stories.
Bull: I heard you on "Talk of the Nation" last week in talking about how "The Fog of War" and how the various issues raised seemed to tie in so well with the situation in Iraq now. And you said that you never planned this, that tied in so closely, that you started production even before 9-11.
Morris: That's correct.
Bull: And that serendipity followed through, and you found your film having a certain relevance --
Morris: Maybe it's a kind of horrible serendipity. It's not the kind of serendipity that you would necessarily wish for. I would like to be able to say the mistakes Macnamara talks about are mistakes that we're currently making all over again. But unfortunately I can't do that because they are.
Bull: Do you think that some day when your films are looked at in their entirety, that you'd want that serendipity to be remembered most for your films, or is there something theme you'd like people to draw from your films?
Morris: Well, there's a whole lot of themes, but I'd certainly want to be remembered for telling interesting and powerful stories. Of maybe going places that other people overlooked.
I'm very proud of "The Thin Blue Line", not just simply because it got an innocent man out of jail. I am of course, proud of that. But I'm proud that I was able to chronicle a story in a way that was different and unexpected. And the story had some unexpected, surprising depth. I think it's also true for the McNamara film. I like the film very much, I feel privileged...I don't know of any better way to describe it.
You know, I'm aware McNamara is hated by an entire generation. And I myself hated him. I myself was an anti-war demonstrator at the University of Wisconsin in the late 60s. But I feel privileged to have been able to record his story and to make this film. Because I think it's an important story.
Bull: Very much so. And the Academy Award, that was certainly quite the perk, I imagine.
Morris: I would call it a perk! I'm not sure "perk" is the right word, [for] unexpected and great pleasure. You know, hell, people want to be recognized for what they do and that is certainly a major form of recognition.
Bull: Very much so.
Morris: I was delighted.
Bull: I've a few more questions for you Errol, then I'll let you settle in because I know you're in between productions, but...before he was executed, did David Harris ever tell you what he thought of "The Thin Blue Line"? Did he ever see it?
Morris: You know, I don't believe he ever did.
Morris: But he did ask me, this was a surprising request...that I send to his lawyer and to his family the complete interview that I recorded with him in prison, years and years ago. Not just the part that appears in "The Thin Blue Line", but the entire interview. And I promised him that I'd do that and I will.
Bull: You haven't done that yet.
Morris: He asked me just a week ago. And I wrote him a letter, I said...and you know in those days, this is late 80s.....people didn't edit on computers, they edited on film. You had a steam-vac or a chem, and you actually cut, physically cut, and spliced pieces of film together. Nowdays everything gets transferred to video and edited on a computer. So I have to go back, I have to track down the original negatives, and I have to make video copies of it. Because they don't exist. But as I said before, and as I wrote to him, I will do it and I will fulfill that last request.
Bull: Will there be anything unique in the interview that movie goers didn't get from "The Thin Blue Line"?
Morris: You know, I don't know because it's been over fifteen years since I looked at it myself.
Bull: Did David Harris ever talk about what he wanted to do with his life if it hadn't taken such a dark turn?
Morris: Well, here's a kid that from the age of 16, and actually before that was constantly in trouble with the law. I don't know if he ever really thought about anything in those terms. The murder of a Dallas police officer when you're still a teenager, a court martial in the Army, a conviction for a series of major felonies and sentenced to San Quentin for seven years. And then just in a very short period of time, when he was out and about again, the time I actually knew him, and then another brutal murder. The murder for which he was executed this week. You're talking about a guy who spent very, very little time out in the world, and the time that he spent was creating havoc.
You know, I always worry that....like anybody....writing about murder, about the tendency to overromanticize criminal violence. And even in talking about David, I remind myself, that...I don't know how else to put it. Maybe it's going back to the initial question that you asked me at the beginning of this interview, when you asked me if he was a sociopath. I don't know "sociopath", "psychopath", "paranoid-schizophrenic", I don't know about the psychiatric nomenclature, but I would say that he's a cold-blooded killer.
Bull: We've talked in good detail about David Harris, and even about Dr. Death, but the third party -- Randall Adams -- have you heard from him time to time again?
Morris: No. In fact, Randall Adams sued me very shortly after he got out of prison. And that in itself is an amazing story. And it was so bizarre and so hurtful and so crazy, that I have never spoken to him since. I know people who are in touch with him, I hear about him indirectly from other people, but I myself have....well, let's just put it this way, for years I've had little desire to talk with him.
Morris: Not that I feel any differently about what I've done. I'm glad I did what I did and I believe in his innocence as much today as I did years ago. That hasn't changed. But my wife summed it up very succinctly. "Just because he's a victim doesn't mean he isn't an asshole."
Bull: I would expect that if I were ever wrongly convicted of murder, and a filmmaker came by and presented a compelling case to have the sentence thrown out, that I might at least send a thank-you note versus a subpoena, a lawsuit.
Morris: Well, yes.....(laughs)..what can I say?
Bull: But maybe Randall Adams himself is a very complex, difficult person to figure out.
Morris: We all are. Let's face it. It's....obviously not all of us kill people, but all of us have capabilities, the capacity to do it. I'm always amazed at how complex a place the world is, and how difficult it is to understand and explain human behavior.
Bull: I got halfway through my Master's in counseling psychology before I gave up.
Bull: I just figured you can't write a book big enough, or read a book big enough to explain the human psyche. So I just try to capture it in interviews and radio features.
Morris: I often think about good and evil. I understand good and evil acts. Taking the life of another person to me is an atrocious thing in any context. But I'm not sure I understand the concept of good and evil people. For the simple reason that people are just too complex to summarize them that way. Do people do horrific, unspeakable things? You betcha. Routinely. You now, I've never liked the term, "Man's inhumanity to Man" because as I point it, it's man's humanity to man (laughs). The most atrocious things that we do are as characteristic of us just as well as the kindest and most beneficial things that we do. It's all a part of us, it's all a part of human nature.
Bull: It's a matter of degree?
Morris: And killing someone like David Harris....I ask myself, is the world a better place because he's not here? Mmm, no, I don't think it is. It's a safer place with him behind bars. But a better place because the state has taken his life, I don't think so.
Bull: If you'd made the appointment, do you think there's something you'd say to him before they marched him away?
Morris: I don't know, because it never happened. But I did write to him and say that I endlessly think about him, the person who I spent time talking to, with my knowledge of what he has done as a criminal. And I often find the two hard to reconcile, although I'm all too aware of the criminal side of the story.
Bull: You've often said that you viewed Harris as an enigma. Do you have any idea of what Mr. Harris thought of you?
Morris: I really don't know. I guess I'll never have a chance to ask.
Bull: Probably many unanswered questions there.
Bull: Errol, that takes care of the majority of my questions.......one last....
Morris: I want to say one thing about what you just said....
Morris: Forgive me.
Bull: No, it's alright.
Morris: It's the one thing, that's..in a way....it's the most frustrating thing about death. Is that the questions you want to ask and have answered by another person can never be answered, whether it's a parent or a friend, or (laughs) even a convicted capital murder.
Bull: It sounds like he made a very distinct impression upon you.
Morris: Oh, indeed.
Bull: And will always as such, because it was an important work for you in that stage of your career, and still is by the sounds of it.
Morris: Yeah, well...very few people have asked me about this. Journalists. And I'm actually very happy to talk about it. It's an important part of my life. And it's a chapter that's more or less closed.
Bull: I wanted to clarify one detail. You said that Randall Adams tried to sue you. May I ask what about?
Morris: Sure. When he got out, he became very angry at the fact that he had signed a release giving me rights to his life story. And he felt as though I had stolen something from him. Maybe I had, maybe I just don't understand what it's like to be in prison for that long, for a crime you hadn't committed. In a certain sense, the whole crazy deal with the release was fueled by my relationship with his attorney. And it's a long, complicated story, but I guess when people are involved, there's always a mess somewhere. (laughs)
Bull: I think motivations collide, or even intentions.
Morris: Yeah. I can't say that I was just a pure do-gooder. Yeah, I would've spent another three or four years trying to get him out of prison. I was fortunate, because....I was determined to get him out, and I was lucky to get him out in three years rather than ten. But as a filmmaker I also had a propriety interest in releasing a film, and making this film and producing a work that could be shown in theaters.
I mean, one of the great jokes was that because "The Thin Blue Line" had gotten so much publicity, so much critical attention, he thought I was getting rich.
Bull: And he resented that.
Morris: And I can tell you how much money I made off of "The Thin Blue Line." (laughing)
Bull: Not a cent.
Morris: Not a cent. I lost money on that movie.
Bull: But it was an important movie all the same. Do you think it makes an effective argument against the death penalty?
Morris: Why, I'd hope so. Yeah. Uh...death is not a particularly good thing. And state-authored death seems to me a pretty bad example of death in general. But again, we can go on and on and on about it. And I thought...you know, there's a crazy certain kind of guilt, I suppose that sets in, that having gotten Adams out of prison, should I have tried to prevent Harris from being executed. You know, I hate the death penalty, it's not any great secret. But I didn't, and I'm not sure I could've.... I could've done anything anyway.
I always tell people that if you're thinking of commiting a major felony, don't do it in Texas.
Bull: Death penalty capital of the world, I believe.
Morris: I believe it is, yes. They don't mess around.
Bull: No they don't. Harris was the tenth executed so far this year.
Bull: I think they average between 40-60 at any given time.
Morris: I was told by his attorney, who I know worked tirelessly on his behalf that she'd done everything she could, but it just wasn't in the cards.
Bull: In fact, your wife had told me that you tried to get out of your productions in time, there was a potential delay from one of the attorneys regarding the potential painfulness of the lethal injection [right], but apparently that move failed?
Morris: Yeah, it was a very odd, odd series of days, very upsetting and odd. Hearing from David on Monday, still hoping there was a possibility to see him. Then hearing that a judge in Texas had issued a stay. And I didn't hear that the stay was overturned on Wednesday. So I was told Wednesday that there was another ten days before he was to be executed. And then I read something on the Internet that was ambiguous, suggesting that the stay had been lifted by the 5th Circuit and that it'd been appealed to the Supreme Court.
And I knew by the nature of the appeal that it wasn't going to work, they'd have to come up with something else. It was weak. But what had actually happened was that it was just quickly overturned, the Supreme Court refused to hear it, and the execution proceeded basically on schedule. And so by the time I read that news he was already dead, I found out about it an hour after he'd been executed. Maybe a little less than an hour.....but.....
Bull: Was there a sense of remorse, relief? Do you remember how you felt when you heard.....?
Morris: Mmm, not relief. Just...yeah, maybe relief. Maybe just the whole week of just this whole crazy attempt to see him and everything was at its end. And sadness. That it'd all come to this.
Errol Morris is a 1969 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received a BA in History.