There are few things more unspeakable and unconscionable than depriving an innocent man of his freedom. Facts disclosed in the following article prove way beyond a reasonable doubt that Benjamin Spencer is innocent of the crime he was falsely accused of and convicted for.
By JENNIFER EMILY Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Published: 26 March 2011 11:18 PM
Three years have passed since State District Judge Rick Magnis found that Ben Spencer was innocent of a March 1987 deadly robbery in West Dallas.
But Spencer, 46, still sits behind bars because the Court of Criminal Appeals hasn’t ruled on the judge’s recommendation that his conviction and life sentence be overturned.
“It’s been weird waking up every morning saying, ‘Wow. I’m in prison,’” said Spencer, from behind glass during an interview at the Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony. “I’ve hoped I was in a coma, having a bad dream. But it’s gone on too long.”
He’s spent 24 years in prison for a crime the judge says he did not commit, and it’s unclear how much longer he may have to stay. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals said the case is still pending and would offer no timeline for when an opinion might be issued.
Much of Spencer’s conviction was built on eyewitness testimony. Three people who knew Spencer swore under oath that they saw him from a distance of 100 to more than 200 feet away on a moonless night, getting out of Jeff Young’s BMW in an impoverished area of West Dallas.
Other men have been cleared in Dallas County crimes — with and without the benefit of DNA evidence — but the state’s highest criminal court has yet to rule on Spencer’s case.
It may not help that Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins stands by Spencer’s conviction, as does the family of Young — the clothing-firm executive beaten to death after working late that night.
Prosecutor Mike Ware, who heads the conviction integrity unit, said he is still looking into the case but doesn’t anticipate the DA’s office will change its stance.
Ware said that prosecutors have to rely on the original jury’s verdict unless there’s proof that the decision was wrong.
“At some point, you have to acknowledge what most people won’t acknowledge: We’ll never know” the truth, Ware said.
But Magnis isn’t the only one who believes Spencer is innocent. The foreman of the jury that convicted Spencer, Alan Ledbetter, now believes it, too.
“I find it incredible to believe he’s still behind bars today,” Ledbetter said. “I just do not understand the position of our district attorney here in Dallas, as well as the parole board and the Court of Criminal Appeals.”
A dark night
Spencer, who was married and expecting a child, said that he was at a park with another woman when Young was killed during a robbery. The woman testified in court, but the jury did not believe her.
Three people, all of whom knew Spencer, said they saw him get out of Young’s BMW and abandon the vehicle the night of the murder. Young was found bleeding in the street two blocks away. He later died at a hospital.
One witness, Charles Stewart, was slain in 1999.
The second, Jimmy Cotton, said at a July 2007 hearing that he had seen Spencer earlier in the day and just assumed Spencer was the same man whom he saw get out the car that night.
The third witness, Gladys Oliver, has repeatedly reiterated, including at the 2007 hearing, that she saw Spencer getting out of the car when she looked out her bedroom window.
Police measured the distance from Oliver’s window. It was 113 feet.
There was no moon on the night Young was killed. The car was illuminated by a nearby streetlight and a backyard porch light.
Experts at the 2007 hearing and in more recent court filings have questioned whether anyone could identify Spencer from that distance even if they knew him.
“That’s something I never considered, how dark it was,” said Spencer, wearing a white prison-issued shirt tucked into white pants. “What I thought about is, you know when you were somewhere and when you weren’t. I was never where they said I was.”
A man serving a life term for another robbery has been accused of killing Young by two friends who are also felons. They told police that Michael Hubbard killed Young, according to testimony at the 2007 hearing. Hubbard invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself at the hearing.
Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, the prisoner advocacy group whose work to free Spencer began in 2000, and Cheryl Wattley, Spencer’s current attorney, said they believe the witnesses in the trial lied in hopes of earning reward money.
Magnis, in a strongly worded 42-page decision, wrote that Oliver “is not a credible witness and is not worthy of belief.”
‘Look for yourself’
Spencer’s mother, Lucille Green, urges anyone who doubts her son’s innocence to go look at the crime scene at night.
“If a person just came out and looked … you’d see there’s nothing to be seen,” said Green, sitting in her living room not far from where the witnesses said they saw her son. “Don’t take anybody’s word for it. Look for yourself.”
Duplicating the exact conditions of that night is difficult.
The street light across the street from where Young’s car was found has been out for years. The next street light over provides little light.
The house where Oliver lived is now a vacant lot. Even if her home were still there, the view is obstructed because of a new fence and an addition to the house next door.
Ironically, questions about how well the witnesses could see were briefly brought up and dismissed by jurors during deliberations at Spencer’s original trial.
Ledbetter said he remembers looking at the pictures showing Cotton’s view from inside his kitchen window and wondering how Cotton could have seen what he said he saw because there was so much glare from inside lights.
“It’s still disappointing that those nagging little questions during jury deliberation, we didn’t let them bother us much as we should have,” said Ledbetter.
Back in state prison
Spencer, Wattley and McCloskey remain hopeful that Watkins will change his mind and support Spencer’s innocence.
Watkins’ support could propel the appellate court to make a ruling in Spencer’s favor.
“We wait with bated breath. … The silence on the other end is deafening,” McCloskey said of the appellate court, adding that the actions or inactions of the court are a mystery.
Spencer is back in state prison, but his hope has never waned, not even during the two years he was in the Dallas County Jail after Magnis declared him innocent. Each day, he expected to be freed.
“All he was doing was sitting in that cell. He couldn’t think. He wasn’t focused. He couldn’t read,” said McCloskey. “He became obsessive about reviewing the facts of his case.”
He finally asked to go back to prison, where the wait continues as he works as a janitor, cleaning classrooms and making copies for instructors. Spencer said he still thinks about his case often, but his job and reading the Bible help take his mind off if it.
His mother visits about once a month. His son — born while he was behind bars — doesn’t visit often now that he’s an adult and has a job, Spencer said.
Spencer is now divorced from his wife although they still write. Should Spencer be freed, McCloskey said, Spencer would live with her. She declined to be interviewed through McCloskey.
“I kind of encouraged her to pursue her happiness,” Spencer said. “I don’t know if she’s ever found it.”
Spencer said it’s harder being in prison after the judge’s ruling. He said that he was gone so long that other prisoners told him they thought he had been freed.
“If I wake up and nothing has changed, then I know they didn’t rule,” he said. “It’s frustrating. I want to be free … I would hate to die in this place.”
March 1987: Jeff Young is killed after being robbed outside his West Dallas office. Ben Spencer and another man, Robert Mitchell, are arrested and charged.
October 1987: Spencer gets a 35-year sentence after being convicted of murder. His conviction is later overturned because a witness, Gladys Oliver, did not disclose that she received reward money from Crime Stoppers.
March 1988: Spencer gets a life sentence at his second trial after being convicted of aggravated robbery.
2000: Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, a prisoner-based advocacy group, and attorney Cheryl Wattley begin working on Spencer’s case.
2003: Mitchell, whom Spencer’s attorney also believes was innocent, is paroled and dies of a heart attack four months later.
July 2007: State District Judge Rick Magnis holds a hearing about claims of “actual innocence” in Spencer’s case.
March 2008: Magnis rules “actual innocence” in Spencer’s case.
Just three weeks after the publication of this article, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, presided over by the infamous Sharon Keller, in apparent spitefulness for being "prodded," denied and dismissed Benjamin Spencer's case.
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