Although a Dallas County district judge decided he was innocent eight years ago, Ben Spencer remains behind bars for a 1987 aggravated robbery he insists he did not commit. After more than 15 years spent working with attorneys trying to clear his name and win his freedom, Spencer's team is searching for new evidence after being denied both parole and a pardon.
On the night of March 22, 1987, residents in a Dallas neighborhood found businessman Jeffrey Young face down in the street. Before he was pushed out of his own car, Young had apparently been taken from his office, beaten and forced into his BMW. He later died from multiple blows to the head.
Three eyewitnesses told police they saw Spencer and another man in and around Young's BMW. Spencer was arrested four days later and charged with murder. At his trial, a jailhouse informant claimed Spencer confessed to the murder. With testimony from those four witnesses — and no physical evidence linking him to the crime — the Dallas County district attorney's office secured murder convictions against Spencer and a co-defendant seven months after the crime.
Spencer received a 35-year sentence, but the conviction was overturned because one of the eyewitnesses did not disclose that she accepted reward money from Crime Stoppers in the Young murder case. Spencer was tried again the next year, convicted of aggravated robbery and given a life sentence.
Spencer, now 51, contends he was at a local park at the time of the attack. The informant who testified against him stood to benefit from a plea deal, Spencer's attorney Cheryl Wattley says, and a defense expert later found that the crime scene that night was too dark for any eyewitness to identify anyone.
The informant, Danny Edwards, later said he lied about his testimony, but also walked that statement back, creating a conundrum for Spencer, Wattley noted.
During a 2007 hearing on the case, Spencer's legal and investigative team took Dallas County state District Judge Rick Magnis to the crime scene and argued that the witnesses could not have been able to positively identify Spencer from that night. Spencer's team also introduced statements to police from informants who said another man already serving a life sentence for an aggravated robbery actually attacked Young.
Taken together, Magnis concluded from the evidence that Spencer was actually innocent, and recommended that the state's highest criminal court throw out his conviction.
But in 2011 the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with Magnis' determination, accepting the district attorney's argument that Spencer had no newly discovered evidence, nor any that proved his innocence.
"Applicant says that 'scientific evidence establishes the wrongfulness' of his conviction. However, an expert report saying that it was too dark and the car was too far away for the eyewitnesses to have seen [Spencer] does not affirmatively establish his innocence," the court said in its opinion. "All it does is attempt to discredit the witnesses who stated that they saw [Spencer] get out of the victim's car."
While Edwards contradicted his trial testimony in a 2002 affidavit, and contradicted that statement in a 2005 affidavit, the state argued that Edwards' changed testimony would not have altered the verdict. Not knowing which testimony is true makes it difficult for Spencer to make his case, Wattley said.
"The problem with that argument, though, is that it's really clear to me at least that he lied at trial," she said. "At trial he said he had his plea bargain with the state before he even met Ben, and the court records show that's impossible."
Now, Spencer's advocates are focusing on building community support to revisit his case, said John Hardin, executive director of innocence group Proclaim Justice. The Dallas County District Attorney's conviction integrity unit is not handling Spencer's case, Patricia Cummings, the office's special fields bureau chief, said in an email. Cummings began her job in July.
Hardin said Spencer's team would accept any release, but "we will always fight for his complete exoneration."
Convinced they know who actually killed Young, it's a frustrating situation, Wattley said.
"It's gonna always be difficult to be locked up for something you didn't do, but to have one judge recognize your innocence and then to have others disregard it, others to overrule that recommendation makes it even more difficult," she said. "I will tell you, Ben is tired."