Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Lenell Jeter

In 1986 I graduated from BYU and was offered employment in Greenville, Texas. I accepted the offer and we moved to Greenville. At the time my wife and I had 4 children. We settled into a rental home and commenced to live out our lives. I was employed by E-Systems Incorporated as a structural engineer. I had occasion to hear about one of my coworkers that had been the target of bigotry. I too experienced some bigotry in Greenville, but I did not experience it to the same extent that Lenell Jeter did. My family and I were also targets of some of the "Souther Hospitality" that was offered in that area of Texas. I never knew that I was a "Damned Yankee" until I lived in Greenville.

Lenell was an employee of E-Systems. He liked to go to the city park and read while he fed the ducks in the park. He would go to the park with his green bag that contained his book and some bread. He was sitting in the park during the lunchtime reading and throwing pieces of bread. A woman that lived near the park heard a public announcement about a robbery that had occurred in Grapevine. The description of the person that had committed the crime was a black man about 6 feet tall carrying a green canvas bag.

Lenell was arrested for the robbery of the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Grapevine. He was clearly at work when the robbery took place, and several people were willing to testify on his behalf to that fact. The District Attorney and the assigned Defense Attorney apparently colluded that Lenell should be convicted. There was ample evidence that Lenell was innocent. The DA's office hid the facts that he was innocent. The defense attorney did not even perform an effective investigation to establish his alibi.

At the time Lenell was arrested, in 1984, E-Systems used a time keeping system that used the telephone as the input device. Evidence was entered that Lenell was at work that he had entered his time into the time system. The DA countered this evidence by asking if it was possible to enter time from a phone not on the premises. The answer was yes, you can enter time from a telephone not on the work premises. The defense rested. He was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison.

How could this happen? There were people that were with him working during the time the robbery happened. Lenell's coworkers took interest in what happened to Lenell and tried through the legal system to get him out. They hit roadblocks at every turn. Finally through effort communicating with the major media they were able to get an investigative story done by "60 Minutes".

I vaguely remember some of the details of the expose' that was done on 60 Minutes, but I do remember better some of the details of my peripheral experience talking to Lenell one day. First the "60 Minutes" expose'.

Greenville was a place where there was pride in being a commerce center for cotton. There was a banner that hung across the road (which was removed before this occurred, but is presented as a backdrop) that read, "The Whitest People in the Blackest Land". People took offense to the sign and it was removed during the era of the civil rights movements. I heard more than one person make disparaging remarks about people that did not match their ethnic origins or religious beliefs. I would say that the environment was hostile toward blacks.

When the investigation was presented on "60 Minutes" they first showed an interview with the woman that was robbed at the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Grapevine. The first question was, "Is this man the one who robbed you?" , as she was shown a photograph of Lenell. To which she replied, "No, this is a nice looking man. The one that robbed me was much darker, had whiskers, was heavier, and was very rough looking." They then showed an interview with the defense attorney. He was asked if he ever talked to Mary White, the witness that claimed he was at work that day. He replied, "Who would believe a f______ n_____ anyway?" This was in an interview that went onto national TV. The interviewer then asked him to come out into the hallway to meet Mary White. She was white, not black. The defense attorney never even interviewed the witness.

Due to the facts that were exposed by "60 Minutes" there was a public outcry about the conviction. The District Attorney's Office re-opened the case and from the evidence the conviction was overturned. The DA requested that his name remain on the records as a convicted felon. That motion was denied and Lenell was able to go back to his life in Greenville.

Lenell was engaged to be married before he was sent to prison for 2 years. His fiance' knew he was innocent and worked with those that were at E-Systems to get Lenell out of prison. They were married when he was released in 1986. After the wedding, Lenell and his new bride were moving into a home. As they were transporting their belongings into the house he dropped a book. Inside the book was an electronic eavesdropping device. They were still harassing Lenell. Public exposure of their culture may have been a cause for retribution.

Not long after all this transpired I had occasion to meet Lenell and talk to him. Jeanette and I were shopping at a local grocery store. Lenell was at the checkout stand. I introduced myself and told him that I knew some of his ordeal and expressed my sympathy to him. I asked him why he stayed in a place that would treat him in such a way. He responded, "Somebody has to do it."


  1. I feel sorry for him. How many people are actually innocent behind bars? It is a shame. I'm glad that he is free, but he lost 2 years of his life that he can never get back. Just makes me so sad.

  2. Lenell sounds to me like a remarkable man. I would have taken my bride and moved north.

  3. The award looks like something you might have made. Is it your handiwork?

  4. We have 3 traveling trophies that we use for our regular meetings. This is one of the trophies. Another is a little table (for table topics). The last is a clipboard (for best evaluator).

    Yes, I was the author of the trophies.

  5. Thanks so much for this. I was about to graduate college when Jeter was arrested and my father pointed out it out to me. Twenty seven years later, that injustice is fresh on my mind. Thank you for taking the time to write about it and for continuing to remind us all about the just work that needs to be done.


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