Convicted of a $615 Robbery, a Black Engineer Is Jailed for Life, to the Outrage of His Colleagues

When engineers Lenell Geter and Anthony Williams, both 25, arrived in Greenville, Texas from rural South Carolina in early 1982, their futures seemed as limitless as the vast north Texas farmland stretching around them. They were among six young, black graduates of South Carolina State College recruited by E-Systems, a leading military and electronics contractor, which offered them salaries of $22,000 a year and challenging work designing and modifying electronic surveillance aircraft. Though initially apprehensive about moving to Greenville, a community of 25,000 that, until some 16 years ago, had a sign over the main street boasting “the Blackest Land—the Whitest People,” Geter and Williams rented a $290-a-month apartment and found life there reasonably satisfying. Their colleagues respected the pair for their intelligence and perseverance.

Today, however, Lenell Geter sits in a state penitentiary cell controversially sentenced to life imprisonment. The judgment, by an all-white jury, was handed down last October for a $615 Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant armed robbery. Geter must serve at least 20 years before parole. Williams, his alleged accomplice, remains free on $20,000 bail, his trial for a separate $31 armed robbery of a 7-Eleven store in Garland scheduled for this fall.

The arrests and Geter’s life sentence have raised a storm of protest from both the NAACP and the pair’s business associates, who are firmly convinced that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Three of Geter’s co-workers—two white, one black—testified at his trial that he had been working with them at E-Systems the afternoon of the robbery. They claim Geter, a mild-mannered, nonsmoking teetotaler, was railroaded by local police hungering for a conviction.

“We’re not bleeding hearts, we’re conservative engineers out to see the guilty punished,” Ed Garrett, 58, Geter’s E-Systems engineering director, told the Dallas Times Herald. “But there’s not a shred of evidence in this case.” Adds Wendell Crom, an E-Systems engineer who helped organize a fund drive for Geter’s appeal that so far has netted $8,300, “They never found the gun, they never found the money, and there was no way Lenell had time to do it. We won’t be satisfied until he is out of jail.” Says NAACP lawyer George Hairston, who entered the case last November at the request of Geter’s fiancée and his college NAACP chapter, “The whole thing illustrates a pattern of racially motivated criminal justice. The D.A.’s office never questioned the credibility of the evidence or investigated [the] strong likelihood of misidentification.”

Dallas County Assistant D.A. Ken Carden, who co-prosecuted Geter in his three-day trial, scoffs at these allegations. He points out that five witnesses to the holdup identified Geter as the culprit. “These charges of racism offend me,” he said. “The word ‘nigger’ has never been in my vocabulary. Geter’s co-workers don’t believe he’s guilty because they don’t want to believe it. The facts of the case got him convicted.”

Those facts, however, have seemed shaky to many observers, who are particularly troubled by the random manner in which Geter was singled out as a suspect. “We were new in town. We stood out,” says Williams. Suspicion began to settle on them during a spate of armed robberies in Greenville and neighboring Dallas suburbs in August 1982. Greenville Detective James Fortenberry placed an ad in a local paper asking for leads to the robbery of a Greenville Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on Aug. 9, 1982. According to police, an “anonymous tipster” phoned in to report that on the afternoon of the holdup, she had seen a brown Volkswagen with South Carolina license plates and a black driver sitting alongside a Greenville public park—two miles from the crime scene.

Fortenberry traced the plate number jotted down by the tipster and informed police departments of nearby Dallas suburbs that Lenell Geter was a prime suspect. Fortenberry also asked E-Systems for photos of its six new black workers. Geter was never formally charged in the Greenville robbery, which has never been solved, but his black-and-white driver’s license photo was circulated throughout the area. Police showed the photo to a witness to another armed robbery at a Taco Bell restaurant in nearby Garland. According to police, the witness who picked Geter’s photo out of six said, “I think it might have been him.” On that basis, a warrant was issued for Geter’s arrest (he was charged in the Garland robbery but never tried), and Fortenberry picked him up as he returned home from work on Aug. 24. “I was shaking, trembling, quite frightened,” remembers Geter. “I had never been incarcerated. At the police station they told me they had 15 unsolved crimes, and if I didn’t confess they’d pin them all on me.” After Geter’s arrest, his photo was placed among five others and shown to the employees of yet another robbed restaurant, a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Balch Springs, a community 50 miles from Greenville. Three of the employees identified Geter as the man who robbed the restaurant at gunpoint of $615 on Aug. 23. Geter was charged with the holdup. Meanwhile, Fortenberry singled out Williams as a possible accomplice, apparently because he was Geter’s roommate. After Williams’ photo was identified by a witness in the 7-Eleven store robbery, he was arrested the day after Geter. Williams was released on bond after a month in the Dallas County jail, but Geter did not make the $20,000 bond and has been in jail since his arrest.

At his trial Geter was represented by Edwin Sigel, 47, a court-appointed attorney who was a “fishing buddy” of prosecutor Carden. “I thought Geter might have been guilty at first,” confesses Sigel, who has since changed his mind. Sigel admitted in court to “communication problems” with his client and was unable to persuade Geter to sign a standard probation application requesting leniency if convicted. “I was paranoid,” Geter says now. “I viewed it as an admission of guilt.” Adds Ernie Lock, an E-Systems colleague who testified for Geter, “Lenell did not trust Sigel at all.”

Against Geter, Carden and co-prosecutor Randall Isenberg produced five Balch Springs Kentucky Fried Chicken employees who remained adamant in their identification of Geter as the robber, though they contradicted one another about his height, hairstyle and clothing. The prosecution attacked the testimony of Geter’s alibi witnesses. Two said they weren’t positive that he was at work the day of the robbery between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m.—during which time, the prosecution charged, he drove the 50 miles to Balch Springs, held up the restaurant and drove back to Greenville. Other co-workers remained unshakable, including Geter’s supervisor, Charles Hartford, 53, who stood firmly by his claim that he had given Geter a drawing revision assignment that day at 1:30 p.m. and it was completed by 4:30. Prosecutor Carden claims the supervisor couldn’t admit he allowed his employee to wander. “Hartford’s motive was built in,” says Carden. “He was afraid that he would lose his job.”

Though the guilty verdict shocked Geter’s colleagues, many on both sides of the issue view his life sentence (under Texas law, the jury may determine both culpability and punishment) as grossly unfair. “It was so far out of reason, it was incomprehensible,” says Wendell Crom, “especially when you consider they started circulating his picture according to rumor.” Greenville Herald Banner newspaper editor Ann Faragher, an acquaintance of Fortenberry’s, was shocked by Geter’s punishment. “I’ve known plenty of first offenders who’ve gotten five-to-10 years, some who’ve gotten probation,” she says. “But life? Never. Geter was sentenced for all the crimes that he was accused of—not just the one he was convicted for.”

In fact, it was Fortenberry’s curious testimony in the trial’s punishment phase that solidified the prosecution’s case against Geter. Fortenberry said that he had called Bamberg County, S.C., where Geter had grown up, and had spoken to its sheriff, Ed Darnell. Fortenberry testified that Sheriff Darnell had told him Geter was “a bad character.” Prosecutor Isenberg suggested in argument that Geter was a suspect in some 30 South Carolina robberies. Attorney Sigel did not challenge this testimony in court, explaining later that he “had trusted” Isenberg’s pretrial word that Geter had a reputation in South Carolina as “a troublemaker, liar and robber.”

But at a November motion for a new trial, Sheriff Darnell swore that he had told Fortenberry a different story. “I told him I didn’t know Geter, I had no record on him, and he wasn’t even mentioned in my file,” says Darnell. He adds that in the course of a rambling conversation on the subject of local crime, another young black man had been named whom Darnell had called “a bad character,” and “Fortenberry could have misinterpreted me.” As for the 30 unsolved robberies in South Carolina, “that could have been over a period of 10 years,” says Darnell. “Geter was not a suspect in my county, and not a suspect anywhere in South Carolina, as far as I know.”

Despite Darnell’s testimony, visiting Judge Herbert Line, a retired judge from Texarkana who tried the original case, refused to allow a new trial. “They managed to make Geter look like an habitual criminal,” says Hartford. “The jury was told that this young man was responsible not only for the robbery in question, but possibly 15 others in Dallas and 30 bad incidents in South Carolina. You put up solid citizens against a ‘hardened criminal,’ and they want to throw the book at him.”

Geter’s laborious appeals process is expected to drag on for a year or more. Meanwhile, Williams, Geter’s former roommate and alleged accomplice, has resigned from E-Systems and is attending the University of Texas at Arlington while anxiously awaiting his trial. He has no solid alibi. Williams, poised and articulate with no former arrest record, maintains his innocence. “I’ve had an interest in designing things ever since I was kid,” he says. “I’ve never had any intention to take things from anybody. I feel like if anybody’s picture is circulated long enough the cops could come up with a positive ID.” Prosecutor Carden remains unimpressed—and unplagued by any doubts over the Geter sentence. “He’s a recreational robber, and nobody wants to believe it. You had five eyewitnesses in the courtroom saying, ‘That’s him.’ I think he got what he deserved.”

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