Years After Innocence Finding, Inmate Remains in Prison

Ben Spencer, on the left, at the Coffield Prison Unit during a February 2013 interview. Right, Andrew Wattley, the son of Spencer's lawyer, Cheryl Wattley, demonstrates the dim lighting in which witnesses said they identified Spencer in 1987.
Ben Spencer, on the left, at the Coffield Prison Unit during a February 2013 interview. Right, Andrew Wattley, the son of Spencer's lawyer, Cheryl Wattley, demonstrates the dim lighting in which witnesses said they identified Spencer in 1987.
TENNESSEE COLONY — In 2008, Ben Spencer’s family bought him new clothes in preparation for a day they had prayed for since 1987. A Dallas County judge had declared Spencer innocent of the robbery and murder that sent him to prison for life.

“I really thought once he made his ruling, I was finally going to get out and be free,” Spencer said nearly five years later from the Coffield Prison here. This month, he will mark 26 years behind bars.

Spencer’s 1988 conviction for the murder of Jeffrey Young was based primarily on the testimony of a jailhouse informant and three eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the 22-year-old man and an accomplice in a dark alley. An expert hired years later by Spencer’s attorneys reviewed the crime scene and concluded that the witnesses could not have seen Spencer; the informant has recanted his testimony.

Dallas County state district Judge Rick Magnis concluded that the conviction should be overturned. But three years later, in an unusual move, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected those findings, saying in part that the expert evaluation of the crime scene was not reliable.

To get Spencer’s case back into court, his lawyers must find new evidence of his innocence.

His advocates remain baffled by the ruling and the reticence of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins — widely known for investigations that have led to dozens of exonerations — to investigate the man they believe committed the murder. Russell Wilson, the assistant prosecutor who leads the district attorney’s conviction integrity unit, said that if new evidence were discovered, his office would pursue it.

“All I can really tell you on that is we’re always open for business,” Wilson said. In 2008, a Dallas County assistant prosecutor told The Dallas Morning News that the office stood by the testimony of the eyewitnesses.

On the night of March 22, 1987, residents of a gritty West Dallas neighborhood found Young, a businessman, lying in the street, barely alive. He had been abducted from his office in an industrial complex, beaten, shoved into his BMW and dumped on the street before he died. A few blocks away, police found his car abandoned in an alley.

Two days later, Gladys Oliver, who lived near where the car was found, contacted Crime Stoppers. She had told police the day before that she had not seen anything.

But after Young’s company made a reward offer, she told police she had seen Spencer and a friend get out of the BMW. She also suggested other neighbors who might have seen something.

Police interviewed Jimmy Cotton, who lived across the street from where the BMW was found. He said he had seen Spencer and the friend from his kitchen window as they got out of the car.

Investigators also interviewed Charles Stewart, who said that from more than half a block away on the moonless night, he saw the pair get out of the BMW.

Police arrested Spencer on March 26, 1987. He was placed in a Dallas County Jail cell with Danny Edwards, who testified that Spencer confessed to the murder.

At the trial, Spencer’s lawyers argued that he had been at a park the night of the crime, talking with a 16-year-old girl, who corroborated his alibi.

But jurors rejected his claim of innocence.

Jim McCloskey, founder of Centurion Ministries, which works to free the wrongfully convicted, took up Spencer’s case in 2000. He is convinced that Michael Hubbard, a convicted robber, killed Young and that Spencer was wrongfully convicted. (Hubbard, known by the nickname the batman, is serving a life sentence for an aggravated robbery in which he assaulted his victim, who was leaving an industrial park, with a baseball bat.)

“This guy is totally innocent,” McCloskey said of Spencer.

Centurion Ministries filed a writ on Spencer’s behalf in 2004. At a 2007 evidentiary hearing in Spencer’s case, Kelvin Johnson, an ex-convict who said he had committed crimes with Hubbard, told Magnis that he informed police in 1987 that Hubbard had told him he had stolen items that matched those stolen from Young. Johnson told police Hubbard had robbed and assaulted Young.

“Michael had explained to us how he did it,” Johnson said in a recent interview.

Hubbard declined to be interviewed for this article, and at the 2007 hearing, he refused to testify.

Paul Michel, an expert in forensic visual science who Spencer’s lawyers hired, said during the hearing that on the night of the crime, the eyewitnesses would have had to have been within 25 feet of the defendant to identify him. The closest of three witnesses who claimed to have seen Spencer was Cotton, who was about 100 feet away.

And at the hearing, Edwards admitted that Spencer had not confessed to him.

After Magnis ruled that Spencer was innocent and recommended a new trial in 2008, the case went to the Court of Criminal Appeals, which must approve such a finding. Usually, it’s a matter of rubber-stamping the findings of the judge who heard the evidence.

But Spencer waited three years for a ruling. “It started to get depressing,” he said.

In 2011, the court found that Michel’s crime scene evaluation was unreliable because he could not replicate the lighting conditions. Even if the court accepted the findings, the opinion stated, it would not prove Spencer’s innocence.

“I thought they would have done the right thing,” said Spencer, now 48. “They did the opposite.”

McCloskey and Cheryl Wattley, a lawyer for Spencer, said they would never give up, but they are running out of options. They have met with prosecutors in Watkins’ office, asking for assistance.

McCloskey said the prosecutor’s resistance in Spencer’s case mystifies him.

“They don’t want to see what is evident to all who look at this case,” he said.

Wilson, the assistant prosecutor in the conviction integrity unit, said his predecessors reviewed the case and found no new evidence. Whether or not he agrees with the appeals court’s decision, Wilson said, it was the last word unless new evidence is discovered.

Spencer and his lawyers say his best hope for freedom is a parole hearing scheduled for July. His last two applications were denied by the parole board, which typically asks convicts to express remorse before consenting to release.

“It’s hard to have remorse for something you didn’t do,” Spencer said.

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