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New Evidence May Free Dallas Man Convicted In Deadly 1987 Robbery

Benjamine Spencer was 22 years old in 1987 when he was arrested for murder. He was newly married, and expecting his first child.
Cooper Neill for NPR
Benjamine Spencer was 22 years old in 1987 when he was arrested for murder. He was newly married, and expecting his first child.

A Dallas man who maintains he was wrongfully convicted in a deadly robbery decades ago may soon be freed.

Witnesses said they saw Benjamine Spencer on the 1987 night Jeffrey Young was robbed and beaten, his body dumped on a street in West Dallas.

Attorney Cheryl Wattley says these eyewitness accounts were shoddy.

“One witness claimed, at a distance of 297 feet — that’s a football field — at 10 o’clock at night, on a night with no moon, he saw Ben Spencer and recognized him by his face," Wattley said. "That’s physically impossible.”

Wattley took Spencer’s case 21 years ago, after meeting Jim McCloskey, founder Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based nonprofit working to free people wrongfully convicted.

Spencer was initially convicted of murder and sentenced to 35 years in prison. That conviction was thrown out when it came to light prosecution witness Gladys Oliver didn't disclose that she'd received reward money from Crime Stoppers.

At a second trial, Spencer was convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison.

Upon appeals, a judge found Spencer actually innocent in 2008, but a higher court disagreed. He's remained behind bars for 34 years.

Benjamine Spencer sits in the visitation room at Coffield Unit in Tennessee Colony, Texas. Spencer was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Jeffery Young.
Benjamine Spencer's case illustrates how difficult it can be for some prisoners in Texas to prove they did not commit a crime without new and unassailable evidence, such as DNA.

McCloskey said Spencer’s fate changed after Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot uncovered new evidence calling further into question Oliver's testimony.

“[She] lied when she denied she received or expected any reward money. When in fact, she received thousands and thousands of dollars of reward money.” McCloskey said.

As The Dallas Morning News reports, a secret payment of $5,000 to $10,000 was given to Oliver by the late Ross Perot in exchange for her testimony, according to a recent filing from Spencer’s attorneys.

They say Perot was a friend of the victim’s father.

The filing also says when Oliver was questioned during the second trial, she denied having received any money besides $580 from Crime Stoppers, according to the Morning News.

Wattley said Spencer should have never been in prison in the first place.

“It was probably not the Dallas County District Attorney’s finest day," she said.

Wattley said that sentiment stands regarding Spencer's ongoing imprisonment.

“I think that there definitely was conduct by assistant district attorneys that contributed to Ben being wrongfully incarcerated," she said.

Spencer's advocates are optimistic he could be freed within weeks.

Got a tip? Email Reporter Bill Zeeble at bzeeble@kera.org. You can follow him on Twitter @bzeeble.

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