Why A Man Declared Innocent Can't Get Out Of Prison Benjamine Spencer's case illustrates how difficult it can be for some prisoners in Texas to prove they did not commit a crime without new and unassailable evidence, such as DNA.
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Why A Man Declared Innocent Can't Get Out Of Prison

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Why A Man Declared Innocent Can't Get Out Of Prison

Law

Why A Man Declared Innocent Can't Get Out Of Prison

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We're going to hear now about the case of Benjamine Spencer. In 1987, he was convicted of murder and has been serving time in a Texas prison ever since. But he says he doesn't belong there because he didn't do it. Ten years ago, a judge declared Spencer innocent, saying the evidence that put him behind bars was falling apart, but that wasn't enough. In a collaboration with The Atlantic, Barbara Bradley Hagerty brings us the story.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's just past 10 p.m. and attorney Cheryl Wattley is standing in a west Dallas neighborhood reconstructing the scene of an old crime.

CHERYL WATTLEY: So you can see the little side window there.

HAGERTY: Right.

WATTLEY: That's...

HAGERTY: From that vantage point 30 years ago, two men were seen running from an alley. She asks Daryl Parker, a private investigator who's with us, to stand under the streetlight.

WATTLEY: Who is it?

HAGERTY: You can't see anything. You can see no facial expressions...

WATTLEY: You can see a silhouette of a man.

HAGERTY: Witnesses said they could see more than a silhouette. They said they saw Benjamine Spencer, and their testimony helped send him to prison for life. On March 22, 1987, 33-year-old Jeffrey Young was robbed as he was leaving his office on a Sunday night. The attackers beat him, stuffed him in his BMW and then left him to die just down the street from where we're standing. They abandoned the car in the alley and fled. The police got lucky, says Faith Johnson, the current district attorney for Dallas County. Three people said they saw Benjamine Spencer and another man emerge from the victim's car and run away.

FAITH JOHNSON: And these were not eyewitnesses who were strangers, you know, strangers who all of a sudden had to pick somebody out of a lineup. But these people knew Spencer.

HAGERTY: Spencer, 22, recently married, expecting his first child, was not worried at first. He had an alibi. He and a young woman told police they hung out all evening, and there was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime - no fingerprints, no murder weapon, no stolen property.

BENJAMINE SPENCER: And so it was like - I began to think about it. I said, well, you know I didn't commit this offense. The truth is eventually going to come out.

HAGERTY: He thought he'd be out in a few days, but Spencer was tried for murder. The jury convicted him and sentenced him to 35 years in prison based on testimony of the eyewitnesses and a jailhouse informant. Then Spencer caught a break. The state's star witness had lied on the stand about whether she had received a reward for her information. Prosecutors offered him a plea deal. He'd be out in less than five years. His attorney thought he should accept.

SPENCER: He was saying, well, you know, if you take it to trial, they're going to try to give you a life sentence and they're likely to get it. And so I'm like, well, I don't care what they're likely to get. I said I'm not going to plead guilty to something I didn't do.

HAGERTY: His attorney was right. A second conviction - this time, a life sentence. With that second verdict, Spencer embarked on a 30-year journey to unearth proof of his innocence. His help on the outside - Centurion Ministries, a group that reinvestigates cases of prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted.

JIM MCCLOSKEY: There's probably not a day that goes by that I don't at least think of Ben.

HAGERTY: Jim McCloskey, Centurion's founder, took up Spencer's case 17 years ago. They interviewed more than 100 people, built a case, and then they asked a trial judge for a hearing.

MCCLOSKEY: We thought we had a good shot.

HAGERTY: That's because Texas is one of a handful of states that may grant a new trial based on, quote, "actual innocence" rather than constitutional issues at trial. Spencer's petition landed with Rick Magnis, a trial judge in Dallas. Magnis was wary at first. The vast majority of exonerations are based on DNA, which had not been presented here. But as he read...

RICK MAGNIS: It started to become persuasive as I looked more and more at the evidence.

HAGERTY: In July 2007, 20 years after the crime, Judge Magnis opened a hearing. The state's star witness held firm, but others backtracked. Spencer's team also presented evidence that they claimed implicated another man - Michael Hubbard. Hubbard was called to testify, but took the Fifth. Finally, they called a forensic visual scientist who testified it would be impossible for the witnesses to identify Spencer under those lighting conditions. Even the state's expert agreed. And with that, Judge Magnis said, the state's case collapsed.

MAGNIS: And when you have two that say none of these three witnesses could have seen what they said they saw, I felt that that was very, very compelling.

HAGERTY: So compelling that Judge Magnis declared Spencer actually innocent and recommended that he should get a new trial.

SPENCER: I was very hopeful. I thought that this is it. I'm going home.

HAGERTY: But he wasn't. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied the recommendation for a new trial. Judge Lawrence Meyers wrote the unanimous opinion. He said, if this evidence had been presented at the original trial, it might have created reasonable doubt, but it did not clear Spencer.

LAWRENCE MEYERS: The problem was there just wasn't newly discovered evidence. That's kind of what really hurt Mr. Spencer the most.

HAGERTY: To win a new trial, Spencer would have to find new evidence, unassailable proof that he's innocent - DNA that's never been tested or a security camera video that's never been seen. It's an incredibly high standard. In fact, the Texas judges call it a Herculean burden. So where does that leave Benjamine Spencer?

MEYERS: Oh, I don't know. Mr. Spencer has been in jail for a long time. Mr. Spencer may be eligible for parole.

HAGERTY: Spencer's attorney, Cheryl Wattley, says they're running out of options.

WATTLEY: Ironically, that's the catch 22. We need new evidence. We need the proverbial breakthrough.

HAGERTY: Thirty years after the crime, it's nearly impossible to find new evidence. But I wanted to see how the case was holding up. One of the witnesses who testified he had had a clear view of Spencer in the alley is not so confident today. In an interview, he gives it a 30 percent chance it was Spencer. Another neighbor who was never called at trial says the man ran right in front of her. She's, quote, "1,000 percent sure it was not Spencer." Then there's Danny Edwards, the jailhouse informant. Edwards had testified at trial that Spencer had said he killed Jeffrey Young. Did Spencer actually say that?

DANNY EDWARDS: No, he didn't say that. He said they was accusing him of doing it. He don't even know the guy. He ain't even been over there. In fact, he had proof that he wasn't over there that day.

HAGERTY: So if Spencer didn't kill Young, as some of his accusers now say, who did? Could it have been Michael Hubbard? Hubbard, who's serving life in prison for a brutal robbery and assault, declined an interview.

KELVIN JOHNSON: I know it's not Ben.

HAGERTY: Kelvin Johnson, one of Hubbard's friends, says Hubbard told him about the attack. Johnson was torn but gave a statement to police about his friend's confession 30 years ago.

K. JOHNSON: Ben locked up for something he didn't do.

HAGERTY: But Johnson never signed his affidavit, and police didn't believe him. Johnson did testify to all that before Judge Magnis, who found him to be credible. Jessie Briseno, the lead detective in the case, said he followed up with Hubbard.

JESSIE BRISENO: And when we found out he was in jail, we went up there and tried to talk to him, and he wouldn't give us the time of day.

HAGERTY: And they already had Benjamine Spencer. At the maximum security prison, Spencer looks professorial in his wire-rimmed glasses, his hair flecked with gray. He is tall and lanky and still handsome, but he seems defeated.

SPENCER: I'm just at a point where I just - I'm still hopeful, but at the same time, it's just like I'm stuck in a system.

HAGERTY: Spencer comes up for parole again in February. The family of the victim, Jeffrey Young, opposes his release. They point out that not one but two juries convicted him. They declined to talk about Spencer's case. Even without parole, Spencer may have one last hope. It turns out the crime laboratory in Dallas may have kept fingernail clippings from Jeffrey Young's right hand. There is a chance that Young scratched his killer and captured his DNA beneath his nails. I asked District Attorney Faith Johnson whether she would agree to the testing.

F. JOHNSON: Absolutely because we don't want any innocent person to be in prison.

HAGERTY: There's no word on when the testing would be. For NPR News, I'm Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

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