The Way of the Gun

The untold story of why Lenell Geter was freed

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.


Lenell Geter leaves a Dallas courtroom in March 1984, the month in which District Attorney Henry Wade ordered all charges against Geter dropped. The case had attracted worldwide media attention, but the results of the reinvestigation of the Balch Springs Kentucky Fried Chicken robbery had never been reported.
Mark Graham
Lenell Geter leaves a Dallas courtroom in March 1984, the month in which District Attorney Henry Wade ordered all charges against Geter dropped. The case had attracted worldwide media attention, but the results of the reinvestigation of the Balch Springs Kentucky Fried Chicken robbery had never been reported.
Billy Fowler, who died in 1992, was assigned to investigate the case against Geter for his retrial.
Mark Graham
Billy Fowler, who died in 1992, was assigned to investigate the case against Geter for his retrial.
Former District Attorney Henry Wade did not initially want to drop the charges against Geter even after being told by his own investigators that they'd found the person who had committed the robbery.
Mark Graham
Former District Attorney Henry Wade did not initially want to drop the charges against Geter even after being told by his own investigators that they'd found the person who had committed the robbery.
Lenell Geter prays with friends and feeds the ducks at the park in Greenville, where he first noticed a policeman copying down the license plate of his parked car. Geter was later arrested at his apartment. The park is where Geter often spent his lunch hour feeding the ducks.
Mark Graham
Lenell Geter prays with friends and feeds the ducks at the park in Greenville, where he first noticed a policeman copying down the license plate of his parked car. Geter was later arrested at his apartment. The park is where Geter often spent his lunch hour feeding the ducks.
Norm Kinne, now retired, was assigned to prosecute Geter in his retrial. Kinne immediately began having doubts when he started investigating the case he was assigned to prosecute, concerns that echoed the media's contention that Geter was wrongly accused.
Mark Graham
Norm Kinne, now retired, was assigned to prosecute Geter in his retrial. Kinne immediately began having doubts when he started investigating the case he was assigned to prosecute, concerns that echoed the media's contention that Geter was wrongly accused.

"I was a forerunner to racial profiling..."
--Lenell Geter

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.

What Fowler routinely encountered were inmates eager to use his visit to avoid prison work for the day. No interview, he recalled, had gone more than 10 minutes before he was convinced there was nothing that would shed new light on the case.

"One afternoon as Fowler and I sat in my office, reading through the transcripts of the original trial," Kinne said, "I told him that I'd done absolutely everything I knew to do and wasn't able to break Geter's story." Though neither mentioned it, both had privately begun to share the belief that Geter, indeed, might be innocent.

Then, on the afternoon of March 15, 1984, David Kirkland, then a captain with the Lufkin Police Department, placed a call to Kinne that would turn the investigation into a frenzied search that would ultimately result in the truth: The man who had robbed the KFC was not Geter but, instead, was apparently a former Dallas resident named Curtis Eugene Mason. Captain Kirkland told Kinne of receiving a call from a former Lufkin city official who insisted to him that the Balch Springs robbery had been committed by Mason, who was the boyfriend of the ex-official's cousin. Mason was currently being held in Houston's Harris County jail. The Lufkin officer gave Kinne a telephone number where the former city official could be reached.

Kinne and Fowler then began a six-day investigation that would help free an innocent man.


On Friday, March 16, 1984, Kinne summoned Fowler into his office to tell him of the previous day's conversation with the Lufkin police captain. "Give this guy a call," he said. "It may be nothing, but just in case it is, I want to keep it quiet."

Fowler returned to the office he shared with several other investigators and waited until they had left for lunch before he placed his call to Lufkin. The ex-official's wife answered, explaining that her husband was at the dentist's office. While Fowler waited for the return call, he checked to see if there was any existing record of Dallas crimes committed by Curtis Mason. Indeed, Mason had been arrested on a drug charge a few weeks before the Balch Springs KFC robbery. The co-defendant in the case was a known drug dealer who had provided Fowler information that had helped him make numerous cases during his days as a narcotics investigator with the Dallas police. Fowler immediately drove to the home of his old snitch.

The man admitted that he and Mason had been snorting cocaine when the arresting officers had arrived and that they had blown the residue of the drug off the table and into the carpet before the police entered the room. "The only evidence seized," Fowler said, "was the razor blade used to cut the coke." The two men spent a couple of days in jail and were released. Mason had remained in Dallas for several days after he was set free. As well, Fowler learned that the apartment where Mason had been living at the time the robbery was committed was located only a few blocks from the fried chicken restaurant Geter had been accused of robbing.

"This guy told me that he had no proof that Mason had been involved in any robberies," Fowler recalled, "but he did tell me that he would occasionally 'disappear' for a day or so, then return with a lot of money in his pocket."

Returning to his office late in the afternoon, Fowler telephoned Wilbert Alexander, one of the chief assistants in the Harris County District Attorney's Office, and asked to speak to whomever was assigned to the Mason case. Karen McAshen was the prosecutor in charge, he was told, but she had left for the day. "I'm not familiar with the details," Alexander volunteered, "but there are apparently several cases--and all of them have to do with robberies of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants."

Fowler hurried across the hall to tell Norm Kinne what he had learned.

"I think maybe we need to make a trip to Houston on Monday," the prosecutor said.

It was that Friday evening when the ex-official in Lufkin telephoned Fowler at his Midlothian home and began to elaborate on the story he'd earlier told the local police captain. "My cousin," he said, "was living in Dallas with Mason when the robbery took place."

"But what makes you think he committed the particular robbery we're interested in?" Fowler asked.

"Because he told my cousin he did it," the man said. He explained that she and Mason had moved to Houston soon thereafter and that he'd been arrested for a series of robberies there. "She called me the other day after an attorney representing him on the Harris County charges had come to her house, saying that Mason had indicated she could provide an alibi for him. She's scared to death. She doesn't want to have to get on the stand and lie for him."

"I'll need to talk with her," Fowler said.

"She says she doesn't want to get involved, but I'll ask her about it and get back to you." The caller refused to give Fowler his cousin's name or say where she was living. The investigator waited up until past midnight, hoping for a return call, but the phone never rang.

On Saturday morning, Fowler was mowing his yard when his wife summoned him to the phone. It was another long-distance call from the Lufkin source.

"He told me that he had spoken with his cousin and that she had said she didn't want to get involved. I begged and pleaded for him to give me her name and number, but he refused," Fowler remembered.

The caller did, however, provide the investigator with additional information on Mason. About a week after the Balch Springs robbery, Mason had stolen his cousin's car and taken it to Beaumont. While there he had been in an accident. "One night he was crossing the street and a car hit him, breaking his leg and knocking out several teeth."

Fowler listened with only casual interest; he had no idea how a pedestrian auto accident might figure into the investigation he was conducting. Then a statement jolted him to attention. "The blue canvas bag and the pistol you've been looking for," he said, "are in the possession of the Beaumont Police Department. Mason had it with him when the car hit him. The police took it when they investigated the accident."

During the first Geter trial, the investigator knew, witnesses to the robbery had testified that the gunman had been carrying a blue canvas bag with white stripes and a white handle. They had also described the weapon as being "large and black." Neither the bag nor the gun had ever been found.

"Did you ever see the gun?" Fowler asked.

"Yes, he showed it to me one time when he was visiting in my home. All I can remember was that it was black and had a long barrel."

The caller went on to say that after Mason was released from the hospital he had traveled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to stay with a sister. "That's when he contacted my cousin, and she went over there to be with him. She told me they had stayed with Mason's sister for only a few days before he cut the cast from his leg and they drove to Houston."

It had been shortly thereafter that Mason was arrested for a series of Kentucky Fried Chicken robberies.

Aware that he had sparked Fowler's interest, the caller interrupted his narrative. "Before I go any further," he said, "I want to know how lucrative this is going to be."

Surprised that the man was evidently interested in selling his information, Fowler said he wasn't sure. "I'll have to talk with my boss about it."

"Is he Geter's lawyer?" the man asked.

"No, sir," Fowler replied, "he's a prosecutor with the Dallas County District Attorney's Office."

For several seconds the caller was silent. "I guess I'm talking to the wrong people. Could you give me the name of Geter's lawyer?"

Fowler hedged, saying that he understood Geter had several attorneys but that he did not know their names. He said he could get their names Monday when he returned to the office.

"By then I was convinced that the information he had was certainly worth looking into," Fowler said, "and I knew Norm [Kinne] wouldn't want the defense attorneys to know about it before we had a chance to check it out. I begged the guy who had called to not talk with anyone else until Monday. Though I had absolutely no authority to do so, I told him I'd see what we could do about paying him for his information."

The informant reluctantly agreed to wait. Fowler immediately phoned Kinne at home to tell him about the conversation. "We need to go to Houston right away," the assistant district attorney said.

That afternoon, they flew to Houston and, at the Houston Police Department, read reports of seven aggravated robberies, all attributed to Curtis Eugene Mason. Attached to the files were reports of two armed robberies of Beaumont Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

Though Mason had, during the later robberies, been armed with a shotgun instead of a pistol, the manner in which the November-December crimes were carried out bore a striking resemblance to that described by witnesses to the previous August's Balch Springs robbery. The only marked difference was that on each of the Houston reports the robber was described as "having a limp" and "several front teeth missing."

From the police department, Kinne and Fowler went to the Harris County jail and had Mason called to one of the interview rooms. The man Kinne interrogated for over an hour looked nothing like Lenell Geter. He was 5-foot-10 and weighed 150 pounds, while Geter was 6 feet and 180 pounds. Mason wore his hair in an Afro and had a goatee. At the time of his arrest, Geter's hair was short, and he was clean-shaven.

Despite Kinne's best efforts, Mason refused to admit any involvement in the Balch Springs robbery. Finally weary of the prisoner's denials, Kinne angrily told him that he and Fowler would be back on Monday to transport him to Dallas where he would be placed in a lineup to be viewed by witnesses to the Balch Springs robbery. Mason just shrugged and said he'd be looking forward to seeing them again.

As Fowler drove the rental car back toward the airport, Kinne told him, "I want you to go on over to Beaumont and see what you can find out there."


It was 10:30 Saturday night when the investigator arrived at the Beaumont Police Department and explained to the desk sergeant that he was looking for information on a year-old accident involving a man now suspected in a robbery investigation.

"Their traffic division was already closed," Fowler recalled, "so they had to call an officer in to locate the files." On the evening of September 6, 1982, it stated, a man named John Davis had been driving his 1979 Ford Futura eastbound on College Street. As he entered the intersection, Curtis Mason had suddenly walked into the path of his car.

There was, however, nothing in the report about the victim carrying any kind of athletic bag or pistol.

It was near midnight when Fowler, having checked into a Beaumont motel, sat reviewing the accident report. Reading the telephone number of the driver of the car, he ignored the hour and phoned John Davis.

Davis remembered the incident well. He described in great detail how Mason had run in front of him. "Was he carrying anything?" Fowler asked.

"Yes," Davis remembered. "He had this blue and white bag. It flew up and hit my windshield. I remember thinking that it was going to come through the glass." He went on to tell how the bag had been lying near the curb when police and the ambulance arrived. "I pointed it out and told one of the officers that it belonged to the man I'd hit.

"I thought it sort of strange when he [Mason] denied that the bag was his. The police took it, though."

"Did you ever see what was in the bag?" Fowler asked.

"Yeah, a pistol. One of the officers took it to his patrol car and put it in the trunk. I was standing right beside him when he unzipped the bag and looked inside. It was a really nice-looking black pistol."

Fowler thanked Davis and apologized for the late-night call. Frustrated that he would have to wait until morning to return to the Beaumont Police Department and see if the bag and gun might still be in the property room, the investigator could not sleep. Soon he was back in his rental car, driving in the direction of the intersection where the accident had taken place. Upon his arrival he checked the diagram attached to the report and determined where Mason had run into the street. He had, the diagram indicated, apparently been coming from the driver's left.

Fowler mentally traced the path the victim had taken before the automobile hit him. Then he looked to the corner, fewer than 100 feet from where Mason had been hit. Pulling a pencil from his jacket pocket, he added his own notation to the diagram. On the corner was a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant.

"He was on his way to rob the place," he said aloud.


Early the following morning, a sergeant in charge of the Beaumont Police Department property room found an invoice indicating that the bag and a Colt .45-caliber revolver had been received on September 7, 1982. The invoice was signed by the two officers who had investigated the accident.

The Beaumont police had a policy of issuing usable handguns to its officers once they were released by the courts. The .45, records showed, had been issued to a patrol sergeant. The bag had been one of many small items that the department placed in "grab bag" type boxes that were sold during periodic public auctions. There was no way to trace who might have purchased it.

The officer, however, dialed the number of the sergeant to whom the gun had been issued, then handed the phone to Fowler. Soon thereafter, the officer arrived with the handgun and signed it over to the investigator's custody.

By midafternoon Fowler was back in Dallas, bringing with him serious doubt that Geter had in any way been involved in the robbery for which he'd already served more than a year of his life. He phoned Kinne at home and said, "I've got the gun that was used in the Balch Springs robbery."

On Monday he arrived in the district attorney's office with the pistol in his briefcase and took it directly to Kinne's office. "Pick someone to go with you," the prosecutor said, "and go back to Houston and get Mason."

Still adamant about keeping the investigation secret, Kinne instructed Fowler to go to the court of District Judge Ron Chapman and get a bench warrant to have Mason returned to Dallas County--not as a suspect but a "witness."

With the warrant in hand, Fowler sought out misdemeanor investigator Bob Whitney and asked if he would accompany him to Houston to pick up a prisoner. Eager for an opportunity to get out of the office for the day, Whitney agreed. "What's going on?" he asked.

"I'll tell you when we get on the road," Fowler replied.

It was just after four in the afternoon when they arrived at the Harris County Sheriff's Department and presented the paperwork authorizing them to take Curtis Mason to Dallas. "I'm not sure I can release him," the lieutenant in charge said. "He's scheduled to go to trial in two days. You'll have to get the judge's approval."

At Fowler's urging, the officer phoned the judge assigned to hear Mason's case and was told he would not approve release of the prisoner. If Dallas wanted Mason, the judge said, it would have to first get approval from the prosecutor. Thus the next call went to Harris County Assistant District Attorney Karen McAshen. "Fortunately," Fowler recalled, "she was still in her office. I explained that I wasn't authorized to give her any details but assured her as best I could that we needed Mason very badly. I asked her to try and persuade the judge to pass the case to a later court date.

"She was a little miffed by the fact I wouldn't explain what was going on, but finally agreed to call the judge." By late in the afternoon the judge had signed off on the release.

When Mason was brought down from his jail cell, Fowler didn't immediately recognize him. He had shaved off his goatee and no longer wore his hair in an Afro, obviously preparing himself for the lineup appearance Kinne had warned of just two days earlier.

They drove non-stop to Dallas, arriving shortly past one in the morning. Mason was booked, not as a suspect in the Balch Springs robbery, but on the warrants for the Houston offenses for which he'd already been arrested.

While Fowler had been in Houston, Kinne had managed to locate two of the five witnesses who had identified Geter as the Balch Springs robber and asked that they view a lineup. Helga Boone, the manager of the restaurant, had pointed to Geter during his trial, insisting that she would never forget his eyes. Mike Tallant had also identified Geter, insisting that the robber had a goatee at the time and that Tallant had "looked down" on the gunman. Though Geter's attorney had pointed out that his client was, in fact, taller than Tallant, the witness had stuck firmly to his story.

In addition to having each man step forward for viewing, Fowler had each of them speak words that witnesses had said they heard during the robbery. "They had said the robber said something like, 'Take your time,' to the person who was opening the safe," he said, "and then, just before leaving, he'd said, 'Don't follow me outside. I've got a partner out there who will blow your head off.'" According to the Houston reports, Mason had said much the same thing in each of the robberies he was charged with committing there.

Boone quickly identified Mason as the man who had robbed her restaurant and later told Kinne that she could not believe she had made such a mistake when she pointed out Geter. "She said there was no doubt in her mind that Curtis Mason was the man who pulled the holdup," Kinne said.

Tallant, meanwhile, positively identified one of the "fillers" in the lineup.

By Tuesday night, Kinne had located the other three witnesses who were living in Arkansas and was having them flown to Dallas. The following day all three, including Juan Vargas Jr., who had previously testified that he had had the best opportunity to view the robber at the time of the crime, quickly picked Mason from the lineup.

Kinne, who had been on hand to view the procedure, looked at Fowler. "It's time to tell the boss what we've got," he said.


It was late in the morning when the assistant district attorney entered Wade's office and outlined the new evidence that Fowler had gathered. Scheduled to speak at a service club luncheon, Wade instructed his assistant to put everything he had in a memorandum and have it on his desk by the time he returned. For the next hour, Kinne and Fowler worked to outline the case they had built against Mason and had Wade's secretary type it. Even as she typed, Wade called in to ask if the report had been completed.

Upon his return, he read the memo and summoned Kinne to his office.

"Norm was up there for 30 minutes or so," Fowler remembered. "I waited in his office and was surprised when he came back with a really discouraged look on his face. He just shook his head and said, 'He doesn't buy it.'

"I couldn't believe Wade had doubts. I felt we had proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Curtis Mason was the person who had done the robbery. We were sitting there, talking about what to do next, when Wade walked in, holding the memo."

From the time Wade had first met Fowler when he was still on the Dallas police force, he had referred to him as 'Sarge.' The district attorney stood in the doorway for several seconds, frowning down at the papers in his hand. "Sarge," he finally asked, "what do you think about this?"

Fowler responded with a question of his own, asking Wade if he recalled a 1978 case of a Tom Thumb grocery store robbery in which a man named James Armstrong had been falsely convicted of and sentenced to life in prison. Then-police Chief Don Byrd, having received a convincing letter from Armstrong that suggested a store cashier had falsely identified him, had assigned Fowler to reinvestigate the case. As a result of Fowler's efforts, Wade agreed to grant Armstrong a new trial, and the case had eventually been dismissed.

"I remember it," Wade acknowledged.

"Well," Fowler continued, "I feel even more strongly about this one."

The district attorney looked at Fowler, then Kinne, saying nothing. Then he turned to walk to a nearby secretary's desk. "Schedule me a press conference for 4 p.m.," Wade said.


Billy Fowler and Norm Kinne stood against the wall in the back of the room, listening as the district attorney told members of the media that new evidence had come to light that indicated Lenell Geter was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he'd been convicted. As Wade spoke, a secretary approached Fowler and whispered that he had a phone call. It was, she said, from someone in Lufkin.

In a troubled voice, the now familiar voice explained that his cousin had been receiving threatening phone calls from Curtis Mason since Fowler and Kinne had first visited him in the Harris County jail. The calls, he said, had continued following his transfer to Dallas. "He's threatening to kill her or have someone kill her because she's the only one he ever told about that Balch Springs robbery. She wants to talk to you."

Though Fowler and Kinne had, while reading reports during their visit to Houston, learned the name of the woman with whom Mason had been living and assumed she was, in fact, the cousin who had been mentioned, Fowler pleaded ignorance.

"You've never told me her name or where I can reach her," the investigator said.

After being given the woman's name and phone number, Fowler hung up and immediately called the jail to request that Mason not be allowed further use of the phone. He then dialed a number in Houston.

While Wade was addressing the media across the hall, Mason's former girlfriend was telling Fowler a story that removed any lingering doubts.

When she and Mason had lived together in Dallas, she had known he was dealing drugs but insisted she had never suspected him of committing robbery until he was arrested in Houston.

In December 1983, on the night the 60 Minutes report on Geter aired, Mason had called her from the Harris County jail to ask if she was watching the program. "She told me that they stayed on the phone during the entire Geter segment," Fowler recalled, "and Mason told her, 'That's me they're talking about, not Geter.'"

He admitted to her that he was the one who had robbed the Balch Springs restaurant and had even recognized two of the women who had been interviewed on the CBS show.

She went on to tell Fowler of Mason stealing her car and taking it to Beaumont, of joining him in Louisiana following his accident and of his ultimate arrest while they were living in Houston. She again insisted that she'd had no idea he was a robber until police came to their apartment and arrested him.

Though she had known of her boyfriend's involvement in the Balch Springs robbery since December, she had not placed a call for advice to her Lufkin relative until March, when Mason's attorney had approached her about serving as an alibi witness.

She began to cry as she continued to tell Fowler her story. "I love Curtis," she said, "but I'm afraid of him. When that lawyer came to me, and I realized that he wanted me to get on the witness stand and lie for him, I got really scared. I just didn't want to be a part of it."

"I'm glad you made the decision you did," Fowler replied.


Though never tried for the Balch Springs robbery, Mason was sentenced to 35 years for seven other aggravated robberies with a deadly weapon, fire arm possession and possession of cocaine and is now incarcerated at the Clements Unit in Amarillo.

The case was seldom out of Fowler's thoughts. Even after Geter's release from prison, people in the courthouse would stop him, unaware of his involvement, and ask if he really thought justice had been served. More than one person suggested that the entire episode had been nothing more than a case of Henry Wade putting a troublesome and controversial matter to rest in the best way he could. There were many who still felt Geter was guilty. Since Wade had offered no public detailing of his office's investigation into the case, Fowler didn't believe it was his place to do so.

"I never felt the district attorney's office was at fault in the case," he would later confide. "It just took the information brought to it, went to court and got a conviction. What a lot of people were never aware of was that Norm Kinne worked just as hard to right that wrong as he ever did to get a conviction. You can't ask more of a man than that."

"I did my job," Kinne said, "and Billy Fowler certainly did his."

Why, then, in the years that followed did he never tell the media details of the investigation that freed Geter? "Because," Kinne said, "nobody ever asked me." For some time after, a hint was in full view of anyone who entered his office. In a bookcase lay Mason's gun, which Fowler had rescued from Beaumont, a constant reminder of the investigation until he finally returned it to the Beaumont officer.

It was only after leaving the district attorney's office that Fowler decided to try to contact Geter. "I just felt he had a right to know how he had been cleared," he said. "That way, if he ever wanted to he would be able to explain it to his friends and family.

"I had read a number of articles in which his mother, in particular, had expressed dismay at the fact her son had been convicted of a crime. I thought maybe he would like to be able to tell the story to her."

For several weeks, Fowler left messages for Geter with a supervisor at E-Systems. His calls were never returned.


Now 43, Lenell Geter has distanced himself--mentally and physically--from the nightmare he was swept into back when an all-white jury found him guilty of a crime he hadn't committed. If there is anger, he hides it expertly.

Having lost his enthusiasm for work as an engineer after regaining his freedom, he left E-Systems and Texas and returned to South Carolina. Now married and the father of three daughters, his attention is focused on Lenell Geter Enterprises, an organization that conducts inspirational and motivational workshops at churches, schools and businesses. Today, he says, he no longer dwells on his days behind bars. He was sitting in the meeting room ofThe Dallas Post Tribune, taking a break from greeting old friends and signing copies of his new book, when he finally heard the details of the investigation Fowler and Kinne had long ago conducted. And what was his reaction? Shaking his head, he first said he'd have to think about it. Then, after a while, he ticked off three words: "Surprising," he said, "and shocking...and belated." And with that he smiled and volunteered a point many who followed his judicial travails might find surprising. "I do believe in the system," he said. "I was exonerated. And I'm free."

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