Supporters of Ben Spencer gathered yesterday on the steps of the Frank Crowley Criminal Court Building, where he was convicted for a crime they believe he did not commit. Monday marked 25 years since his arrest for the murder of retail executive Jeffrey Young at a remote industrial complex. Spencer has maintained his innocence ever since, with a strong base of those who agree, including many Dallas County exonerees.
"I am Ben Spencer" cries rang out on the courthouse steps. His mother repeated the cries; Victor Thomas, one of the first DNA exonerees echoed, along with Alan Ledbetter, the jury foreman at Spencer's trial, and a circle of family, friends and stalwart supporters.
"I'm hoping he gets out pretty soon," says Lucille Green, Spencer's mother. When her son was first arrested 25 years ago, she figured it was for an outstanding traffic ticket or something minor. He might have even made it back in time for dinner.
But he still hasn't come home. Spencer called Green late that night, and she remembers him saying he was being held for "killing a white man." He swore to her that police had picked up the wrong man; she never doubted him.
The Observer wrote about his case as part of a December feature about the transition between DNA-based and non-DNA exonerations. The Dallas Morning News has written a slew of articles and editorials about procedural holes and questionable evidence is Spencer's case. Centurion Ministries, an organization that explores possible wrongful convictions, supports his innocence, as does Dallas Can Do Better, a local nonprofit advocating for Spencer's release.
Victor Thomas, who was exonerated more than 10 years ago, spent 15 years in prison with Spencer. "He was my barber, and I was his cook," he said of Spencer, whom he described as one of his "closest friends." They had a mutual understanding that they were innocent, he says.
While the other prisoners would take any recreational opportunity to work out or kill time, Thomas and Spencer would spend their days in the law library, researching their cases. "We growed up in the library. We growed up in prison together," he says. The two men, both from West Dallas, shared much in common. Now, Thomas is free; Spencer is not.
"Largely it was circumstantial evidence," Ledbetter, the jury foreman on Spencer's case, told Unfair Park. Nonetheless, he says, "There was no reasonable doubt at that time. ... We had no reason to believe the district attorney's office was manipulating the facts." A private investigator hired by Centurion Ministries showed up on his doorstep in 2002, explaining that there was more to the case. People had come forward saying that another man confessed to the crime.
As more evidence unfolded, Ledbetter came to believe that he had helped to convict an innocent man, which is what brings him to rallies like yesterday's and what brought him to Spencer's 2008 writ hearing in which District Judge Rick Magnis ruled in favor of Spencer's release based on actual innocence. If the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that decision, Spencer would be a free man. But Dallas prosecutors did not support his claim of innocence, and after more than three years, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the lower court's decision. Years later, it's rare that a day goes by that Ledbetter doesn't think about the case.
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After the rally of support for Spencer's release, the group rolled up their signs, packed into a courthouse elevator, and rode to the 11th floor hoping to talk with District Attorney Craig Watkins.
Watkins was unavailable, but Russell Wilson, who leads the Conviction Integrity Unit that vets claims of innocence, approached the group in the crowded lobby. Wilson explained why his hands are tied at the moment.
"The district attorney can't change their mind and change and appeals court decision," he told the crowd. There is no new evidence in the case, and for a claim of innocence to move forward, by law, there must be a significant piece of newly discovered or previously unavailable evidence.
"There's rules and laws that we have to follow and have to be bound by," Wilson told Unfair Park. "Their desire and the legal reality, there's a bit of a gap there," he says, urging Spencer's supporters and anyone in a similar position to keep exploring the case and digging for new evidence. Sometimes there's nothing, but now and then, it works out.