We’re no strangers to hearing about an innocent man being locked away in prison. Just flip on Netflix and you’ll find a least a couple series on the subject. We feel for these men and women who have been wrongly incarcerated. We curse the system that placed them there in the first place. And we fight to have these people to be declared innocent and rightly released.
But what if you’ve been declared innocent and you’re still in prison?
Dallas. On March 22, 1987, at around 9:30 pm, 33-year-old Jeffrey Young was robbed and beaten as he left his office. After a call, police arrived to find Young bleeding, but alive. He was rushed to the hospital where he later died due to severe skull fractures that were the result of several blows to the head.
Police believed that two attackers jumped Young, robbed him, stuffed him in his BMW, drove to West Dallas, dumped his body on the street, abandoned the car, and bounced.
Four days later, police arrested then 22-year-old Benjamine John Spencer. He had been identified by three witnesses as having fled the BMW. Spencer was no stranger to the law having been locked up for driving on a suspended license and serving probation for a car theft.
But Spencer wasn’t known for violence. He was newly married with his first kid on the way. He may have had some trouble in the past, but murder was a long shot. Spencer believed that his arrest was a mistake, one to be shortly rectified. He had a strong alibi, no physical evidence, no fingerprints, no murder weapon, no items connected to the robbery in his possession, and no real motive.
But on October of that year, Spencer was tried and convicted of the murder of Jeffrey Young and was sentenced to 35 years.
Though Spencer was given a brief opportunity at freedom when it was revealed that the state’s star witness lied on the stand regarding whether or not she got a reward for her information in the case.
Instead of a trial, the state offered Spencer a plea deal letting him out in less than five years. But Spencer refused to confess to something he didn’t do. So, Spencer went to his second trial and was found guilty, once again, thanks to a damning testimony by witness Gladys Oliver, whose house overlooked the alleyway where the BMW was abandoned.
This time, he was sentenced to life.
For 30 years Spencer fought hard to prove his innocence in a system that supposedly presumes innocent until found guilty. It wasn’t until 2007 that things began to appear promising. At an evidentiary hearing, Dallas County state District Judge Rick Magnis heard a passionate and meticulous argument from Spencer’s legal and investigative team.
Spencer’s team argued that there was no way witness Oliver could have positively identified Spencer on the night of the incident. In a moment that feels like it was ripped right out of My Cousin Vinny, a forensic visual scientist who examined the scene testified that witnesses would have had to have been no more than 25 feet away to discern a face.
The nearest eyewitness was 93 feet away. At best, witness Oliver could have simply seen a silhouette. The state’s expert concurred.
In connection with other evidence brought by Spencer’s team, including evidence of another aggressor, Magnis concluded that Spencer was an innocent man and deserved another trial. He recommended that the state throw out his criminal conviction.
But in 2011, things hadn’t gone the way Spencer had hoped. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with Magnis’ ruling. Spencer’s team didn’t provide any new evidence and further argued that nothing they presented proved Spencer’s 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.
“All it does is attempt to discredit the witnesses who stated that they saw [Spencer] get out of the victim’s car.
“Relief is denied.”
Spencer comes up for parole this coming February. Despite a near perfect record, he continues to be denied. As far as future legal attempts for Spencer, there is a chance that DNA may be able to exonerate him.
But, as of now, Spencer, a legally declared innocent man, remains in prison for life.