By Tim Madigan,June 1st 2015
On Wednesday, the long stay of Lester Leroy Bower on Texas’ Death Row will likely come to an end. With his appellate avenues apparently exhausted, the 67-year-old is scheduled to be put to death for the 1983 slaughter of four men in a Grayson County airplane hangar.
During his 31 years behind bars, Bower’s two daughters have grown and begun families of their own. Bower and his wife, Shari, have divorced and remarried. Once a husky outdoorsman and hobbyist, Bower has turned into an old man as he waited for his case to wind its tortuous way through the American judicial system.
One thing has not changed in all the years. Bower, who lived in Arlington at the time of his arrest, continues to maintain he is innocent. In a recent interview on Death Row near Lake Livingston, he repeated that claim.
“I did not,” Bower said when asked if he committed the crimes. “What’s more, I feel we have had a reasonable number of people come forward with credible stories to say I did not commit these murders.”
He referred to four witnesses who have independently implicated a gang of southern Oklahoma drug dealers in the hangar slayings. One of them purportedly told his girlfriend that the murders happened after a drug deal gone bad.
But a jury will probably never hear their testimony.
“Once you are convicted, it’s really difficult to get back into court on an innocence claim unless you’ve got something like DNA,” said Maurice Possley, senior researcher for the National Register of Exonerations. As a reporter for theChicago Tribune, he also wrote extensively about wrongful executions. “I understand the legal theory behind it. We don’t want cases dragging on continually. Defendants can’t keep having unlimited bites at the apple.
“But at the same time you never know when something critical is going to be discovered — that if it had been there at the beginning there would have been a strong likelihood of acquittal.”
Bower’s lawyer tried but failed to find a DNA link to the alternative suspects.
‘I blame myself’
Grayson County District Attorney Joe Brown could not be reached for comment last week about the Bower case. But over the years, prosecutors in the rural county north of Dallas have remained steadfast in their belief of Bower’s guilt. They have argued that Jerry Brown, Bob Tate, Philip Good and Ronald Mayes were slain to cover up Bower’s theft of an ultralight airplane on the bloody Saturday afternoon of Oct. 8, 1983.
Bower, a chemical salesman living in Arlington with his wife and daughters at the time of his arrest, had been linked to one of the slain men through telephone records. Pieces of an ultralight once belonging to Tate were found on Bower’s property. Prosecutors alleged that Bower owned a handgun and ammunition similar to that used in the killings.
But most damning were Bower’s lies to investigators about whether in fact he had visited the hangar just before the killings. Bower, who did not testify at his trial, has said in the years since that he was afraid to become involved in the case and worried about the feelings of his wife, who did not want him to buy the aircraft in the first place.
“I blame myself mightily for the position I’m in,” Bower said during the recent Death Row interview. “The minute you start bucking the system, you immediately go from a person of interest to a prime suspect.
“I’m not upset with the prosecutors or the jury or the judge,” he said. “They did the best job they could do with the information they had at the time. But now there would be a lot of other evidence to consider, and I wish they would have the chance.”
Even the judge who heard Bower’s last state appeal seemed to agree with the inmate, at least to a point. But in a ruling issued in December 2012, Judge James Fallon of Grayson County’s 15th District Court nonetheless denied Bower’s request for a new trial.
Fallon, who declined to comment last week, apparently relied on an important legal distinction.
“While the new evidence produced by the defendant could conceivably have produced a different result at trial, it does not prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant is actually innocent,” Fallon wrote.
Possley said that Fallon’s ruling illustrates the dilemma for defendants.
“He [Fallon] points out in pretty clear terms that this guy probably would have been found not guilty had this evidence been available at trial,” Possley said. “But now, all these years later, he can’t meet the new standard, which is actual innocence. That was not the standard at trial. Then it was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“To me the system as designed makes it almost impossible for someone in that kind of situation to succeed unless you’ve got DNA or someone else comes in to say, ‘Judge, I did it. I killed those men.’”
‘Where he should be’
In a series of hearings in state and federal court, she was known only as Witness No. One, a woman who testified that her boyfriend seemed highly agitated on the weekend of the slayings.
As the two drove through Sherman, a small city a few miles from the hangar, the man named Lynn finally confessed to her that “they had a dope deal that went bad and they had to kill four people.”
Lynn referred to himself and three other men — Ches, Rocky and Bear — who were known by authorities to be involved in making and selling methamphetamine. The witness said she also overheard Lynn and the others discuss the slayings.
“Ches and Lynn were in the living room and they were pretty drunk,” the witness recalled in a 2008 interview with the Star-Telegram. “Ches thought everything was funny. He said something about, ‘Did you see that guy’s eyes when he opened the door?’ or ‘Did you see that guy’s face when I shot him?’”
Lynn had trouble sleeping in the weeks to come, said the witness, who broke up with Lynn a short time later. She contacted Bower’s lawyers in 1989 after reading in a newspaper about Bower’s first execution date.
“My heart is broken for him,” the witness said in another interview a few days ago. “I don’t know what else to do. I know in my gut that this is just not right. I don’t understand why people cannot just listen or not want to see the obvious. To me it is obvious. No one will ever convince me that Mr. Bower did it.”
In the years since she came forward, three others have also taken the witness stand on Bower’s behalf, including the wife and son of Brett “Bear” Leckie, who died of cancer several years ago. In a dramatic hearing before Fallon in 2012, Leckie’s wife testified that she heard her husband and the other men talk about the airplane hangar shootings.
“I believe they committed the crime, yes,” she said.
Leckie’s son has also testified that his father admitted being present when the slayings occurred. A fourth witness, Rickey Joe Donaghey, said Leckie told him that he took part in the killings.
“When you look at it, it’s not just my testimony, but the testimony of the other people who came up behind me, all corroborating all the things that I said,” Witness No. One said. “When you look at Mr. Bower, then you look at Lynn, Rocky, Ches, Bear, the whole bunch, it’s apples and oranges.”
Prosecutors attacked the new testimony as hearsay, highlighted inconsistencies, and stressed the witnesses’ histories of heavy drug use.
One of the chief investigators also remained unconvinced of Bower’s innocence.
“When it started off, we didn’t have a lot to go on,” retired FBI agent Jim Blanton said after the new witnesses emerged. “When we started working on the case, we started putting the pieces of the puzzle together in a relatively short period of time. We put together a pretty good puzzle, a real clear picture of what happened in that case. … I feel strongly that Lester Bower is the man, the killer. He’s right where he should be.”
‘I’m out of here’
In early 1984, Bower’s last words to his wife, before he was led from his Arlington home in handcuffs, were “I did not.”
“There have been times over the years when I thought, ‘Well, could he have done that?’” Shari Bower said last week in the living room of her Arlington home. “Then I thought, ‘No way.’”
Shari Bower has made arrangements with a funeral home but said she is hopeful Wednesday will not be the end.
“On his last execution date in February I thought it was going to happen,” she said. “For some reason, this time I don’t. I don’t have any foundation for that. It’s just a feeling.”
On Death Row in the Polunsky Unit, Lester Bower said he’s at peace, either way.
“What am I to be afraid of?” he asked. “If they kill me two weeks from now, my last words will probably be ‘I’m out of here.’ What can possibly be worse than this?”
But Bower said he will not give up the fight to live.
“You never know when someone is going to come up and say, ‘I know more about this,’” Bower said. “Or one of the three men who are left will come forward and say, ‘I found Jesus.’
“If that happens and you’re dead, it does you no good.”
This article originally appeared on the June 1st edition of the Star-Telligrams website. To view it entirely, click here.