Exonerees, supporters rally for Ben Spencer, who has served 25 years in prison

Credit: Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor
Exoneree Richard Miles held the microphone for Lucille Spencer Greene to talk about her imprisoned son, Benjamin Spencer, during a rally in front of the Frank Crowley Courts Building on Saturday.
Dallas Morning News
Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ben Spencer has sat in an East Texas jail cell waiting for the call.

For more than 25 years, Spencer has been serving a life sentence for the fatal robbery of a clothing-firm executive found beaten to death in West Dallas. Hope emerged for Spencer four years ago when a Dallas County judge ruled that he was innocent and deserves a new trial.

But a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin unanimously rejected the judge’s recommendation, delivering a setback a year ago and raising the prospect that Spencer might never be freed. Former inmates who served with Spencer and were exonerated are now pushing for his release.

“It is not justice to falsely believe that you have the right man,” said Kristina Hahsler, executive director of Dallas Can Do Better, an organization that has tried to free Spencer. “We are in the right, and we are going to keep on coming.”

More than two dozen family members, friends and supporters rallied on the steps of the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas on Saturday to raise awareness about his case. Five exonerees, who met Spencer in the Coffield Unit in Tennessee County, pleaded for him to be paroled.

“We know Ben Spencer is innocent because we grew up with him,” said Richard Miles, who served 14 years for a murder he didn’t commit. “We know his character. We put our integrity behind him.”

The five former inmates said they first met Spencer as one of the prison’s barbers.

But over time, Spencer became an advocate for them to pursue their exonerations, they said.

“Spencer encouraged me to work on my case,” said Victor Thomas, who was exonerated in 2002 after 15 years in prison. “He needs to come home.”

A Texas parole board is expected to hear Spencer’s case this year, but the chances of his release or exoneration appear slim. Unlike most exoneration cases, Spencer’s case lacks DNA evidence that can be tested to show his innocence.

Spencer has maintained that he was with a female friend at a Dallas park in March 1987 when Jeffrey Young was abducted from his clothing company’s office on Inwood Road. Young was found beaten and lying in a West Dallas street near where Spencer lived.

Three witnesses said they saw Spencer and another man exit Young’s BMW about 10:30 on a moonless Sunday night. With Young’s car illuminated by a street light and porch light, the witnesses said they could identify Spencer from where they were between 100 to 200 feet away.

Spencer was sentenced to life in prison in 1987. Since then, one of the witnesses was killed and another said he’s now unsure what he saw that night. A third witness, Gladys Oliver, stands by her story that she saw Spencer from her bedroom window, a distance of 113 feet.

Experts hired separately by prosecutors and Centurion Ministries, a group working on Spencer’s release, concluded that Oliver couldn’t have seen Spencer’s face. However, the state’s expert said she could have identified his form.

The Dallas Can Do Better group has offered to pay for Oliver to take a polygraph test. Oliver couldn’t be reached for comment.

State District Judge Rick Magnis, in 42-page letter in 2008, found that Spencer’s conviction rested on unreliable eyewitness testimony. He said Oliver “is not a credible witness and is not worthy of belief.” Alan Ledbetter, the foreman of the jury that convicted Spencer, now believes he was innocent.

But Spencer needed the Court of Criminal Appeals to agree with the judge’s decision. That court disagreed, and Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has said that he believes Spencer is guilty.

Without DNA evidence to test and with Oliver maintaining her story, Spencer’s prospects for being exonerated have faded, supporters said.

“I want the Young family to know that I know you’re hurting, and I’m hurting along with you,” said Lucille Spencer-Greene, Spencer’s mother. “I wish you would forgive us all and come on over to try to right this wrong.”