Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

Freeing the wrongfully convicted through science was the easy part. Now what?

Page started the Texas Exoneree Project in 2008 as a focus group to see what exonerees needed most in terms of post-release services and financial assistance. "I could see that there was a lot of energy between them," she says. When she suggested that they all meet regularly, they agreed, and the project became a support group, a focus group and lobbying body for improved legislation to help exonerees and prevent wrongful convictions. The group took on a life of its own, and the House of Renewed hope is one of the most recent outgrowths.

Page says the mothers of exonerees will also meet since there aren't many people who can relate to their situations. One mother who's met with the others stands apart from the rest. Lucille Green's son, Benjamine Spencer, is still in prison, though his case rests on eyewitness identification that many people, including the foreman of the jury that convicted him, now consider questionable.

Pinchback plans on visiting Spencer in prison, possibly to help advocate for his release. "I believe him. ... He's on my list," Pinchback says.


Dale Duke, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Dale Duke, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Johnny Pinchback, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.
Mark Graham
Johnny Pinchback, one of the dozens of wrongfully convicted men freed from prison in Dallas County.

"Oh, he's getting out. I don't know when, but he's getting out. I'm hoping soon," says Green, who drives a minivan with 'Free Benjamine Spencer' posters fastened to the windows.

On a moonless night in 1987, two people lurked outside the office of retail executive Jeffrey Young in a remote industrial complex. When Young walked out, he was forced back inside, robbed and beaten. The attackers drove Young's BMW through West Dallas and shoved him from the car. Young died from the beating.

In 2000, innocence advocacy nonprofit Centurion Ministries began investigating Spencer's case, and in 2004, attorney Cheryl Wattley, who is now a professor at the University of Oklahoma Law School, filed a writ claiming Spencer's innocence.

Spencer's conviction rests squarely on eyewitness testimony. Initially, three witnesses claimed Spencer exited the BMW after it pulled into the alley near their homes. All had come forward after a cash reward was announced. One of the eyewitnesses later testified that he could not identify the man leaving the car as Spencer. Another has since died. The case hinged on the testimony of Gladys Oliver, who remained unflappable.

Dr. Paul Michel, an optometrist and former California police officer who evaluates conditions of visibility and assesses the validity of eyewitness testimony, testified at Spencer's 2008 actual innocence hearing. He's as stalwart about Spencer's innocence as Oliver is about his guilt. Michel maintains that it is "absolutely impossible" that Oliver would have been able to identify Spencer from the window of her home.

"It is so absurd," he said. "You don't need to be a doctor of optometry or an ex-police officer. ... It didn't, couldn't, and would never have happened." He speculates that the eyewitnesses in Spencer's case were motivated by reward money, but said that in general, "witnesses can be very convinced that they saw something that they didn't see, and they can be convincing to the jury."

District Judge Rick Magnis agreed, and in 2008 ruled Spencer was "actually innocent." Since Watkins' office did not support Spencer's release, unlike Duke and Pinchback, he couldn't walk out of the hearing a free man. In cases in which there is no dispute between prosecution and defense, the courts assume the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which must rule on all actual innocence cases, will concur. Spencer waited three more years in prison until a decision was finally handed down: The Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Magnis' decision.

The appeals court decision ruled "little weight" should be given to Michel's testimony because it could not be based on the exact conditions at the time of the offense, and he would have had to make too many assumptions for his conclusions to bear more validity than the eyewitness testimony.

Magnis could not talk specifically about the case because Spencer may come before him again, but he did say that Spencer's was the only case in which he recommended a prisoner for release.

As for what's next, Wattley says there isn't a clearly defined step. To have the case reopened, Wattley would have to present new evidence and establish that it was not available at the time of the last trial. "It creates a very narrow door," she says.

DNA evidence is, of course, the gold standard for what it takes to reopen a case. "The reality is that not every case is going to have DNA, so that's the problem," Wattley says. "We always say that we want to get it right, but what do we do when we don't get it right?" Wattley says DNA evidence may have raised the bar to a level too often unattainable by cases without it.

Several years ago, Spencer's mother, who visits him once a month in the Coffield Unit, had the chance to meet Watkins at a public meeting. "He told me all the cases he worked on were DNA cases — that he wasn't working on any non-DNA cases, but I have found since Ben's been in, he has let some people out with non-DNA," Green says. "I even wrote [Watkins] a letter, handed it to him personally. He told me he was going to look into the case, and I haven't heard from him."

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20 comments
Toni Bugg
Toni Bugg

Even if someone that was Wrongly Convicted is finally Exonerated & ends up being compensated financially, where does that compensation justify all the time that was stolen from an innocent person? Texas pays out $80,000 per year of incarceration, when it should be 1 million at the least.

Grace Means
Grace Means

There was no DNA in the case of my son, (1981) he, a friend and a white girl was in the Black area smoking marijuna. The cops stopped him and told her to say that they raped her (twice each) or she would go to jail for drugs. Of course, she said that they raped her; they did take her to Parkland where the doctor (white doctor) from the hospital came to trial and said that the person had no secretion, no scratches, no foreign hairs, and no sign of sex...still one white juror hung the jury. The DA promised the other boy (who had no record and visiting here from Detroit) to roll over on my son and he could go back to Detroit on probation, where my son had misdemeanors. After 7 months being held downtown with no release he decided to say that they had; with the help of his lawyer, he plea bargained. I have tried so hard to get help from the Innocent Project and without DNA, they closed the case. I need help and after all these years we are still fighting this case...He was 18 then and now he is 52...Nothing is ever done to the Eye Witness or the Police that made the original charges on any of the Proven Innocent.

Bruse Wane
Bruse Wane

I am currently working with a highly respected Private Investigator on a NON-DNA related Exoneration Case similar to some of the findings in the article. A very compelling case that need some immediate attention. Could someone point me in the right direction? my email is antong_lucky@yahoo.com Thanks in advance!

Grace Means
Grace Means

Bruce exactly what are you trying to do? I also need help with a NON-DNA case of Exoneration...Michelle Moore admitted clearing the easier cases with DNA...those that were just set up and left out there with a terrible record and no options of freedom.

Guest
Guest

Hard to believe that a guy like Bradley, who helped a murderer stay free for six years by opposing DNA testing in the Morton case, would talk about non-DNA cases being open to manipulation.

Given that he had evidence in his files for over twenty years (Bradley joined the Williamson Co DA's office in 1990, at which time he began opposing Morton's release. He had access to exculpatory evidence that was never turned over by his then-boss, but he made no attempt to correct the record until over 20 years later when he couldn't hide anymore) that should have been turned over at Morton's trial and he expressly worked to protect a man who murdered at least two people from having to face justice, he's very clearly a master manipulator himself.

I don't know why John Bradley worked so hard to make sure Mark Alan Norwood stayed free. You'd think a DA would rather put a murderer in prison, but I guess that's not how Bradley rolls.

Texasdave60
Texasdave60

congrats on the cover, Leslie....I am scared to death to tell my story of how Im being screwed by the TDCJ Parole folks, yet I'd like to talk with you about it since you have the guts to explore. Thanks. email for phone number.

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ralphost
ralphost

You wanted you got a police state. All those cleared with dna show the percentage of wrong convictions. both with and without dna. Locked up for brownie points by the cops and the DA.

Show me one DA who will admit he has ever been wrong. Then think how many times you have had to change your mind on your job.

It a bad driver damn it was the hard drive failing. Except someone gos to jail life forever ruined.Even when fixed not one day can be returned. The hardest thing in life to do should be to put a man in jail.

Not the easiest like it is now.

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TDKS FBT
TDKS FBT

Don't they usually get tons of money once freed?

Sheila Berry
Sheila Berry

No, they don't get tons of money. Only 27 states have compensation for the wrongly convicted; most of them have caps on how much a person can get and place numerous roadblocks in the process. Most exonerees cannot sue because the prosecutors who put them in prison are immune from civil lawsuits.

MM
MM

What price do you place on not being able to watch your children grow up, never spending another day with your mother, or facing the fear of being shanked or raped every day in prison when you are an innocent man?

hdmi
hdmi

There will be more and more cases like this throughout the country. I hope DNA finally frees those that are innocent. I feel for these men because they have to rebuild their lives again at no fault of their own.

Justice before glory
Justice before glory

Toby Shook was one of those 'win at all costs' prosecutors. His only interest was getting featured on another episode of American Justice. His cases should be examined closely for examples of prosecutorial misconduct.

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james
james

prosecutors are required to turn over ...evidence but they don't always....those prosecutors are guilty of crimes and they should do the time they caused to be done.if you were my prosecutor and i was wrongly convicted and did 20 years being brutalised and raped...do you think i might think you owed me...everything....

 
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