Errol Morris, the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, made a little movie back in the 1980s called The Thin Blue Line. It’s an investigation of the murder of a Dallas police officer, and its findings led to the release of Randall Dale Adams, who had been wrongly convicted of the crime. Adams came within days of being put to death for something that he didn’t do.
I decided to ask Morris if he’s been following the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (he has) and what it says about our justice system. He said:
My view is that the death penalty encourages mistakes. It’s not just ‘mistakes can happen.’ It engenders them. And Texas, as we all know, has been enthusiastic about the death penalty. Not just in passing new legislation, but in the number of capital murder cases and convictions and death warrants and just in the number of executions.
And he raised an interesting line of argument. To crudely paraphrase it, these capital cases involve horrific tragedies for which the community demands some justice (e.g., a dead cop, or three dead little girls). And because of that, investigators go to extraordinary lengths to find someone that they can punish. Morris’ words again:
If there’s a choice between no case and a case, unfortunately it becomes very easy for the human mind to find justifications for making one decision, one preferred decision, rather than another.