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How Morley Safer’s dogged reporting saved a black aerospace engineer’s life

Morley Safer, age 84, passed away today leaving an indelible mark on journalism.
Morley Safer, age 84, passed away today leaving an indelible mark on journalism.
D Dipasupil

Legendary 60 Minutes reporter Morley Safer, who passed away Thursday at age 84 just days after CBS announced his retirement, set a high bar for journalism.

Safer's career took off as he unveiled the atrocities of the Vietnam War to the American public, much to the chagrin of President Lyndon B. Johnson. But in his favorite reported story, Safer proved that a bit of solid investigative reporting could be as effective in overturning a wrongful conviction as DNA would be used to do so today.

In 1983, Safer reported the story of Lenell Geter, a 25-year-old black aerospace engineer who was sentenced to life in prison for robbing a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Greenville, Texas, in August 1982.

To Safer, however, the details of the case didn't add up. Geter was recruited to the predominantly white area for a position at the major military and electronics contractor E-Systems. While he was reading a book in a local park (the out-of-state tags on his parked car were reported as suspicious by locals), police approached him. Police departments had circulated a photo of Geter as a possible suspect for a recent KFC robbery and other holdups in the area.

Geter was eventually arrested. He had no criminal record and there was little evidence against him, but an all-white jury sentenced him to life in prison, with the option of parole available only after he served 20 years of his sentence.

During Safer's 1983 60 Minutes report, Geter called himself "a hostage in the house of injustice." Plea bargains were proposed. Geter maintained his innocence. Lucky for Geter, he found an ally in Safer, who could sift through the implicit racial biases that plagued his conviction.

Safer brought the inconsistencies front and center to the American public. The prosecution alluded that Geter had a secret criminal streak, even telling Safer the engineer had "Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde" tendencies. Witnesses were said to have identified Geter in a color photo that did not exist. But when Safer approached those same witnesses with two different black-and-white photos of Geter, none of them could identify him as the culprit.

Geter's story is sadly quite common. In 2012, the Innocence Project found that people of color made up 70 percent of those exonerated through the use of DNA, a procedure that started seven years after Geter's arrest when DNA became legally admissible as forensic evidence. African Americans accounted for 63 percent of those freed.

In Geter's case, Safer's reporting made all the difference — Geter was released in March 1984.

"It took about seven months to complete that story," Geter said in 2011. "By doing the work the police didn't do, and doing the work that even his own defense lawyer didn't do, and certainly the work the prosecution didn't do, we were able to prove a man was innocent and, in effect, save a life."