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An Innocent Man Set Free, Lenell Geter Returns to Carolina to Wed His College Sweetheart

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The afternoon rain drummed on the roof of the Jerusalem United Methodist Church, a modern brick structure in the ripening cornfields of Orangeburg, S.C. An aging sedan pulled up in front, and a man hunched up under a tan Stetson dashed for the shelter of the church’s white-columned portico. Inside, he took in the familiar interior—the empty pews, the simple altar, the light filtering through the stained glass windows—as if he were seeing it for the first time. “We been waiting two years for this wedding,” drawled L.C. Hickson, father of the bride-to-be. “When it happens tomorrow, it’s gonna be like a 200-pound weight lifted off everybody’s chest.”

Only eight months ago the bridegroom, Lenell Geter, 26, was behind bars in a Texas penitentiary, sentenced to life imprisonment for holding up a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise for $615—a crime he and his colleagues at a Greenville, Texas engineering firm swore he didn’t commit. His case looked hopeless: Despite solid alibis provided by nine co-workers at his October 1982 trial, the college-educated, $22,000-a-year mechanical engineer was identified as the robber by five eyewitnesses. He was given a life sentence after the arresting officer, James Fortenberry, testified—erroneously—that Geter was a career criminal suspected of dozens of holdups in his native South Carolina.

But Geter’s family, fiancée Marcia Hickson, 25, friends and colleagues never gave up their fight to clear him. They took the case to the NAACP and to the media (PEOPLE, Aug. 15, 1983). “As long as Lenell was in prison, I was too,” says his mother, Ella Mae Willis. “We had faith all along that he would be released,” adds Marcia, a recent graduate of the Orangeburg School of Nursing, who met Lenell while he was a student at South Carolina State College. Last December after months of intensifying publicity, Geter was released from jail and granted a new trial. Then, in March, all charges against him were abruptly dropped when a new suspect—an ex-convict—was arrested. After 19 nightmare months Geter returned to his design engineering job at E-Systems, a military and electronics contractor, and began again to plan for his wedding. “The Lord moved on the hearts of those men in Texas and let a free man go,” asserts Rev. Jack Washington, pastor of the United Methodist Church.

On his wedding day last week Lenell Geter looked handsome and serene, a vastly different man from the shy, confused convict in prison-issue denims of a year ago. Geter doesn’t like to dwell on his arrest and time in prison, yet the horrors keep coming back. “The hardest part is not permitting those natural feelings of hate, anger and distress to change you,” he says. He confesses that he is considering suing Texas state prosecutors and the Greenville Police Department for wrongful arrest and imprisonment—”from a corrective, not a malicious angle,” he hastens to add. “I’m human. Of course I have some bitterness. I need a span of time to alleviate it. I trusted the police and they really hurt me. But the love given to me from colleagues, my family and friends has helped.”

Lenell Geter grew up in Denmark, S.C. A poor, largely black community of 6,000, it is a quintessential sleepy Southern hamlet. Some of those unable to escape, as Geter did, languish in front of Thirsty’s ABC Package Store on South Magnolia Street, where the subtropical languor is broken only by the thundering roar of Southern Railroad freight trains passing through town.

By 2:30 p.m. on Geter’s wedding day, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 had packed the Orangeburg church—including Lenell’s parents, two brothers, four sisters, and the six children of his eldest brother, who died about five years ago, at 28, of a heart attack. Charles Hartford, Geter’s E-Systems supervisor, who testified for him at the trial, was the sole white member of the wedding party. Geter’s court-appointed lawyer, Edwin Sigel, flew in from Dallas. So did two of Lenell’s earliest champions, Nina Daniels Wheeler and Ina Daniels McGee, middle-aged twins in matching baby-blue pillbox hats and pearl drop earrings, who marched with American Flags outside the Dallas County Courthouse during his pretrial hearing last February. They describe themselves as “advocates for youngsters and for justice.”

The hour-long ceremony, complete with a gospel singer belting out The Lord’s Prayer from the piano and a communion service, was fervently religious. “It’s like a resurrection from the dead,” said Ed Sigel as the crowd spilled out the doors at the end. “When I saw Lenell in jail in Dallas, we could only talk through glass, but I saw a picture of myself,” said Dr. Oscar Butler, a vice-president of South Carolina State, who knew Geter as a student and brought his case before the NAACP. “Lenell could have been any one of us. Now I hope he won’t spend his time looking back, because the world will pass him by.”

Such a prospect does not seem likely. As he and bride Marcia stepped into their waiting limousine, furnished free of charge by a mortician, Geter’s unjust incarceration seemed a distant memory. “There were times when it seemed to me like I was in a deep, dark hole all by myself,” he said. “But in my heart, I’ve always been a free man.”