By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In those days before the cancer would spread and claim his life, longtime law enforcement officer Billy F. Fowler could recount old cases worked with recall that suggested photographic memory. A member of the Dallas Police Department for two decades, he had been the partner of J.D. Tippit, off-duty on the day the officer was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. From DPD, Fowler had moved to the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, where he spent a couple of years as an investigator. He was serving as a lieutenant with the suburban Midlothian Police Department when he died in March 1992.
It was during Fowler's days in Midlothian that I was researching the murder of an undercover officer, spending a great deal of time recording Fowler's recollections. The subject often veered to other times, other cases--like the 1984 investigation he'd conducted for the district attorney's office in the infamous matter of Lenell Geter, a man falsely accused and convicted of a robbery and sent to prison for life. "It's a shame," he confided before his death, "that Geter was never told what we learned." His message, though unspoken, was clear: Some day the story should be written. And, as if aware that I would need more than just his memory, however good, he handed me a bulky envelope. Like many old-time cops, Fowler had kept copies of files from some of his most interesting cases. The Geter story was all there--the paperwork, from handwritten notes, phone records to typewritten reports--verifying every detail I'd earlier tape recorded. Later, visiting with then-Assistant District Attorney Norm Kinne, he acknowledged that the story was as Fowler had told it. When, recently, I learned that Geter would be returning to Dallas for a few days to promote a book, it seemed time he should hear it.
"I was a forerunner to racial profiling..."
It was, and remains, one of the dark and troubling moments in Dallas judicial history, spread to a head-shaking nation first by an investigative team from CBS' 60 Minutes, then by a made-for-TV movie produced by the same network. The prestigious National Lawyer magazine explored it in critical detail in a story titled "Lazy Justice." Newspaper editorial writers throughout the country used it as a platform to heartily condemn what they perceived as Dallas' quick-draw style of criminal prosecution.
Even as he was being eulogized recently, his life and career celebrated by the city's legal community, the glowing obituaries of longtime Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade reminded that among his many triumphs was a dark and lingering mistake. The wrongful prosecution of a black man named Lenell Geter has, for almost two decades, remained an indelibly tarnished spot on his 36-year career.
And though the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would eventually rule that the Dallas County District Attorney's Office was shielded by governmental immunity and could not be sued for any violation of civil rights related to the case, it would haunt the public conscience in much the same way a nightmarish occurrence in Dealey Plaza had years earlier.
Geter, then a soft-spoken 24-year-old engineer working for E-Systems in nearby Greenville, had been arrested and convicted of the August 23, 1982, armed robbery of a Balch Springs Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. Despite no previous criminal record, the South Carolina native was sentenced to life in prison.
For 16 months he remained behind bars while his lawyers continued to argue his innocence and a team of investigative reporters at the Dallas Times Herald raised provoking questions about Geter's actual involvement in the crime. Wade, meanwhile, stood firm in his insistence that the right man was in prison.
Only after the airing of the 60 Minutes investigation and a new trial was ordered did the legendary prosecutor, counting the remaining days until his retirement, have the Geter matter reopened. He assigned first assistant Norm Kinne--who had not been involved in the original prosecution of the case--to reinvestigate.
As soon as it was announced that a new trial would be granted, Kinne and assistant prosecutor Jerry Banks began traveling to E-Systems' headquarters, interviewing employees in an attempt to trace Geter's actions on the day of the robbery. What they learned was immediately troubling.
"Many of the people we spoke with," Kinne recalled, "had never been interviewed before. There were three of Geter's co-workers--people who had not testified during the first trial or had even been interviewed by Geter's own lawyers--whose combined testimony would have put Geter at work at the time of the offense.
"I soon realized that he had a much stronger alibi than the first jury had heard. And, I knew that at some point during the upcoming retrial I was going to have to tell the court that I was in possession of what I considered strong alibi evidence that the defense had not uncovered."
Kinne, a man who had long enjoyed his reputation as a fiery, aggressive prosecutor, was beginning to have doubts about the strength of the case he was scheduled to prosecute that coming April.
Meanwhile, Fowler, a longtime Dallas police officer who had begun working as an investigator in the district attorney's office, made several trips to various units in the Texas prison system to talk with inmates who had, in the wake of the 60 Minutes report, begun writing to say they had vital information about the robbery for which Geter was convicted.