Spencer’s misfortunes began on March 26, 1987, when he was arrested for robbing and killing Jeffrey Young, a 33-year-old executive with a wife and three children. After a four-day investigation, police concluded that Spencer and another man, Robert Mitchell, had bludgeoned Young as he worked late in his office in the warehouse district of Dallas. The men allegedly stuffed Young in his BMW, drove into the poor neighborhood of West Dallas, and dumped the victim, who was still alive, in the middle of the road. They then, according to police, parked the car in an alley and ran away. No one saw the assault. But Gladys Oliver, who lived near the alley, told police that she’d spied Spencer and Mitchell dash away from the car, even though the street had few lights and the moon had not yet risen.
Spencer, 22 years old and newly married, with a baby boy on the way, had no record of violence. No physical evidence connected him to the crime. None of the fingerprints found at the crime scene or in the car matched his. The police found none of the stolen items at his house. They never found the murder weapon. Spencer also had an alibi: A neighborhood friend testified that she was with him when Young was killed. The state’s case relied entirely on the eyewitness testimony of Oliver, two young men who backed up her story, and a jailhouse informant who insisted that Spencer had bragged about the crime when they shared a cell.
Today, even the prosecutor says the evidence was astonishingly thin. “I’m reading the [trial] transcript, and I walk away going: How in the hell did I get a conviction?” Andy Beach, who prosecuted the case nearly 33 years ago, told me last month. “I mean, absolutely, there’s reasonable doubt.”
But Frank Jackson, Spencer’s attorney, believes that the guilty verdict was inevitable in 1988 Dallas. “It’s hard to overcome a dead white guy who’s killed by two black men in a black area of Dallas where you dump his body out on the street,” he told me in 2017. “It’s just hard to overcome that kind of emotional case.”
Spencer was sentenced to life at the H. H. Coffield Unit, a maximum-security prison, in 1988. During the first 12 years of his imprisonment, he appealed to anyone he could think of—attorneys, politicians, scientists who could debunk the eyewitness testimony. He struck out. What are the chances a convicted killer is innocent, and anyway, how do you prove it? There was no DNA in the case that could be tested to exonerate him. Only one person, a lay minister in New Jersey by the name of Jim McCloskey, responded to his plea.
In 2000, Spencer received a visit from McCloskey, as close to a godsend as one can imagine. McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries, the first national organization to reinvestigate questionable convictions. He is considered the father of the modern innocence movement: He won his first exoneration as a Princeton seminarian nearly a decade before the Innocence Project was launched, and his work has exonerated more than 60 people—some just days before execution. McCloskey took Spencer’s case, tracking down witnesses, discovering evidence pointing to another perpetrator, and finding scientists who stated that no one could have identified Spencer on that dark night. He and Cheryl Wattley, an attorney, presented their evidence to a Dallas trial judge in 2007. A year later, the judge found that Spencer deserved a new trial based on “actual innocence.”