Longform

Beyond DNA, Difficult Tests for the Justice System

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"We know, we veterans," Pinchback says. When he begins the visits, he'll "sit and talk — and listen," constantly on the lookout for contradictions. "Tell me again, man," he'll repeat.

While a few exonerees have already visited others in prison, Christopher Scott, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and exonerated in 2010, is starting a nonprofit called House of Renewed Hope to help organize a system of prison visits to others who may be wrongfully incarcerated. Scott is already looking into an aggravated robbery case of a man in the prison system's Coffield Unit, where he was held. Like his own case, Scott says, "It's non-DNA too, so I've got a whole lot of groundwork. ... It's hard to beat those types of cases.

"With non-DNA, how can you tell if they're telling the truth or not?" Scott says. "But those are the cases I want, because they're more challenging for me. I've been there and done that. ... With non-DNA you've got to pay close attention because you don't want to miss nothing. The littlest mistake can cost the guy the rest of his life in prison."

Discussions of cases that are part of Scott's program will take place at meetings of the Texas Exoneree Project, co-directed by Dr. Jaimie Page, an assistant professor of social work at Texas A&M University in Commerce, who runs the program along with exonerees Scott and Chatman. Moore, the former Dallas County public defender, will act as the supervising attorney, providing cases for the exonerees to explore. Several exonerees planned to attend a private-investigator training course.

"These guys have the best bullshit radars on the face of the planet," Moore says. "They can smell a rat from a mile away." They all know how to investigate a case because for years in prison, most of them worked on their own, Moore says. "It's perfect. Plus, they need a purpose and this is what most of them committed their purpose to be — to help others in the same position."

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.


"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."

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Leslie Minora