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He Spent 34 Years Incarcerated For A Crime He Says He Didn't Do — Now He May Be Freed

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Benjamine Spencer has spent the last 34 years in a Texas prison for a crime he says he did not commit - a violent robbery that led to the death of a white man on the streets of Dallas. Spencer isn't the only one saying this. The foreman of the jury that convicted him, a trial judge, independent investigators and attorneys and three of the four witnesses who testified against him - all of them have now said that Spencer had nothing to do with the crime. And yet all of his appeals failed. But now Benjamine Spencer - he's lucky. After nearly 3 1/2 decades, a new development means he is expected to walk out of prison in the next few weeks. Barbara Bradley Hagerty has reported extensively on this case for NPR and The Atlantic, and she joins us now.

Welcome, Barbara.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It's great to be here, Ailsa.

CHANG: So before we get to this latest development, I just want to start with this stunning quote from the man who prosecuted the case 33 years ago, Andy Beach. He said to you recently, quote, "I'm reading the transcript, and I walk away going, how in the hell did I get a conviction?" Barbara, can you just real briefly talk about how little evidence there was in the first place to convict Benjamine Spencer?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, it was pretty incredible. So there was no physical evidence connecting Ben Spencer to the crime. The fingerprints didn't match his that were found in the crime scene, in the car. They never found a murder weapon. Spencer had an alibi. It really all came down to essentially the eyewitness testimony of a woman named Gladys Oliver. And Gladys Oliver said she didn't see the murder - she couldn't have because no one was there - but she did see Ben Spencer and another man running away from the victim's car. And it was really her testimony that convicted Ben Spencer.

CHANG: And why was Gladys Oliver, as a witness, given so much weight?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Andy Beach, the prosecutor, told me that Gladys Oliver was one of the best witnesses he had ever had. She was in a wheelchair, so she was eye-level with the jury. The jury foreman told me that it was her testimony that really, really convicted Benjamine Spencer. So she - later turned out that she had accepted money and lied about it. But for that trial, she was a rock-solid, rock-star witness.

There was something else going on, too. Remember - this was Dallas in 1988. Under the DA's office back then, they would try to get thousand-year sentences for Black men. The feeling was that if this Black man didn't do this crime, then he probably did another, so we might as well put him away. If you were a Black man in Dallas in the 1980s, you really, really did not want to be arrested for anything because your chances of getting off were very slim. So that was really the culture in which this trial took place.

CHANG: Right. And what was remarkable in Benjamine Spencer's case was that, you know, the very absence of forensic evidence - like no fingerprints, no DNA, as you say - that was the ultimate thing that doomed him, wasn't it?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes, it was. And the problem for Benjamine Spencer now is that any possible evidence that could be retested, say, with new DNA, scientific testing methods, all of that has been thrown out or lost. And so the very fact that he was not connected to the crime by any physical evidence means that he also can't exonerate himself because how do you prove a negative?

CHANG: Spencer's tides are turning only now. And you attribute that to what you call political serendipity. Tell us what you mean.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Yes. So an article or an NPR story doesn't have any legal weight, obviously. But in 2018, a new Black progressive DA was elected. His name is John Creuzot. And he had heard about the Ben Spencer case, partly because I called him up about it. And he reopened it. He gave it to the head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, and they investigate kind of questionable convictions. And this woman, Cynthia Garza, tackled this case as if her - it was her own brother in prison.

She found documents and people who said that Gladys got between $5- and $10,000, that she lied about it at trial. She got confirmatory evidence that the other eyewitnesses and the jailhouse informant were lying. And she even found a Brady violation, right? She found that the prosecutor at the time knew that Gladys was expecting to get up to $25,000, and he should have told that to the defense because the defense could have undercut her testimony. Remember - she was a star witness. So they should have turned over that information.

CHANG: Right, a Brady violation being when the prosecution conceals exculpatory information from the defense. Now, ultimately, you write that Benjamine Spencer was, quote, "the luckiest of the unlucky." How so?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: You know, we've come to believe exonerations come really easily - all you have to do is test the DNA that was recently found, and the person walks out of prison. But most cases don't have DNA in them. Look at what happened with Ben Spencer. He had almost no chance of getting out of prison, but he had this kind of cast of thousands that wanted to help him. You have two pro bono lawyers. You have a judge who ruled him innocent. You have national media attention. And still, Ailsa, there was no relief.

CHANG: Right, right. When does all of that ever happen all at once, you know?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right. And then - but the reason he gets out, the reason he's so lucky, is because there was a DA who was willing to reopen the case. And even with all that, it took 34 years. The big insight for me with this case is that it is so easy to convict an innocent person, and it is nearly impossible to get that person out of prison, to undo the mistake.

CHANG: And even after all that, even after the confluence of all those different factors, which is so rare, after Spencer's released, he won't be exonerated ultimately, right?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Right. That's what's kind of incredible. To - exoneration is a really, really high standard. To be exonerated, you have to show that there was a piece of newly discovered evidence that would convince a jury, you know, by clear and convincing evidence, that he couldn't have committed that crime. Now, that usually is DNA. That's a really, really high standard. In fact, the Texas courts call it a Herculean burden.

So if he gets a new trial, which he won't - I mean, they - basically, what's going to happen is - they can't have a new trial after 34 years. Witnesses have died. Evidence has gone away. So they dismiss the charges. But still, his name won't be cleared. He won't get compensated for spending 34 years of his life, from ages 22 to 56, in prison after he got convicted in an unfair trial. I want to say, though, that this is not over. The Conviction Integrity Unit is going to continue investigating his case. It is possible that he will be exonerated. It's just going to take a lot more work.

CHANG: Barbara Bradley Hagerty is currently writing a book about Benjamine Spencer's case and has written about it already for NPR and The Atlantic.

Thank you so much, Barbara.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thanks for having me on, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE SONG, "WANT SOMETHING DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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