An update on the Ben Spencer Case By Jim McCloskey
March 19, 2021 – After spending 34 years in the Texas penitentiary for another man’s crime, 56 year old Ben Spencer is free at last. He walked out of the Dallas County jail at precisely 4:58 PM on Friday March 12, 2021 into the arms of his long awaiting wife, Debra, their son, B.J., and then his long suffering 82 year old mother, Lucille. Dallas Judge Lela Mays ordered his immediate release a few hours earlier and recommended that his conviction be vacated based on a joint petition by the Dallas District Attorney and Ben’s Defense Team.
Since 2000, Dallas attorney Cheryl Wattley and Centurion have asked four different Dallas District Attorneys to reopen Ben’s case based on new evidence that Centurion’s investigation had uncovered that pointed to Ben’s innocence and guilt of the real killer. Our entreaties were given lip service at best.
Ben’s high hopes had also been dashed in 2011 when Texas’ highest court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, rejected Dallas Judge Rick Magnis’ 2008 recommendation that Ben be given a new trial based on actual innocence. Judge Magnis had conducted an evidentiary hearing and found the 1988 trial testimony of the entire slate of state witnesses to be incredible. Three of those witnesses claimed they had seen Ben and his co-defendant Robert Mitchell exit the victim’s car and abandon it in a neighborhood alley.
Judge Magnis ruled that it was physically impossible for them to have seen what they said they saw due to the dark and moonless night and the lengthy distance they were from the alley. The fourth witness, a career criminal who had testified at Ben’s trial that Ben confessed to the murder while they were in the county jail, admitted to the Judge during the hearing that Ben never said any such thing to him.
After taking three years to render its judgment, the high court finally ruled; shockingly, it concluded that legally speaking, the new evidence didn’t meet the “herculean standard” required to establish innocence in a non-DNA case. Deeply depressed but not giving up, Ben continued to fight for his freedom from his prison cell.
But a change did come in 2020 when, unlike his four predecessors, the newly elected DA John Creuzot and his Conviction Integrity Unit Manager Cynthia Garza agreed to reopen the case and investigate it from top to bottom. Dallas attorney Gary Udashen, who agreed to join Cheryl and Centurion on a pro bono basis, was instrumental in convincing the DA to take a hard look at Ben’s case.
Cynthia’s year-long investigation unearthed new evidence on top of what we had discovered years before that satisfied both DA Creuzot and Judge Mays that each of the four state witnesses lied at trial. The most important new evidence discovered in Ms. Garza’s investigation determined that the star witness, Gladys Oliver, lied at trial when she denied receiving or expecting to receive any or all of the $25,000 reward money. The new evidence established that in fact she received at least $10,000 and possibly the entire $25,000. The trial prosecutor conceded in an affidavit that he did not reveal to the defense that in his pretrial discussion with Miss Oliver she wanted and expected to receive as much of the $25,000 as possible in exchange for her testimony against Mr. Spencer.
When Ben was asked what kept him going all those years he replied, “Even though I had seeds of doubt, I always had Hope. I couldn’t see giving up. My Faith told me that somehow, someday God would provide a way out.” Then he added “Patience wins out over time. It always does.” Words of wisdom borne of interminable suffering all of us could take a page from.
As he departed his cell block at the county jail on his way out, Ben was startled when the inmates cheered for him and the guards congratulated him. Then he walked into a tumultuous crowd of some 75-100 supporters and hordes of media people waiting for him outside the jail’s front door, all clapping, cheering, and yelling well wishes to him. He said this reception and the realization that he was a free man “rocked my world.”
When asked by the media how he feels he simply said, “I’m looking forward to getting to reconnect with my family and re-acclimating to the free world. I feel wonderful and thankful to have made it to this point in my life”. He then walked off with his 34 year old son, B.J., who was born three months after his father’s arrest. It was the first time in either man’s life that father and son could touch and embrace each other. With family (wife, mother, and son) they drove away to Debra’s house, the home he will share with her as they renew their life together.
This day was a long, long time coming, but change did finally come. We are grateful to everyone who played a role in Ben’s release, and to all those who continue to fight for justice for those innocent men and women who remain wrongfully incarcerated.
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