Radio Atlantic: How Innocence Becomes Irrelevant

The story of Benjamine Spencer shows a legal system that prefers naming someone guilty over figuring out who really is.

Jim McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries, stores case files in the basement of his New Jersey home. (Nathan Bajar / The Atlantic)

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After Rick Magnis, a Texas judge, reviewed the evidence in Benjamine Spencer’s case, he recommended a new trial for Spencer “on the grounds of actual innocence.” But Texas’s highest criminal court took the rare step of rejecting the judge’s ruling. Why? Because Spencer did not meet the state’s “Herculean” standard of unassailable proof, such as DNA, that would remove all doubts of his innocence. According to the judge who wrote the opinion denying Spencer a new trial, this standard has kept innocent people in prison without a possibility of getting out.

In this third and final chapter of “No Way Out,” we reveal more evidence that points to Spencer’s innocence: A new witness who confirms his alibi, new technology that calls into question the testimony of the star eyewitness in his trial, and a full recantation by another key eyewitness against him. We also share a stunning discovery: potential DNA evidence that offers Spencer the thinnest hope of meeting the state’s astronomical burden of proof.

And yet, none of this may be enough to exonerate Benjamine Spencer. In this episode, we explore why that is.

Key individuals mentioned in this story (listed in order of appearance):

From Parts I and II

  • Benjamine Spencer, the prisoner, convicted in October 1987, retried and convicted in March 1988, given life in prison
  • Jeffrey Young, the victim, murdered in Dallas in March 1987
  • Jay Young, Jeffrey’s son, the elder of two
  • Cheryl Wattley, Spencer’s current attorney
  • Troy Johnson, a friend of Jeffrey Young’s, who tried calling him the night of his murder
  • Harry Young, Jeffrey’s father, a senior executive in Ross Perot’s company
  • Jesus “Jessie” Briseno, a detective for the Dallas Police Department, the lead investigator on the murder of Jeffrey Young
  • Gladys Oliver, the prosecution’s star eyewitness in the trials of Benjamine Spencer
  • Robert Mitchell, another man convicted a week after Spencer in a separate trial for the same crime, now deceased
  • Faith Johnson, the current district attorney in Dallas
  • Frank Jackson, Spencer’s defense attorney in the original trial
  • Andy Beach, the prosecutor in the trial that sent Spencer to prison
  • Alan Ledbetter, the foreman of the jury that convicted Spencer
  • Danny Edwards, the jailhouse informant who testified in Spencer’s original trials that Spencer had confessed to him
  • Debra Spencer, Benjamine Spencer’s wife at the time of his conviction
  • Christi Williams, the alibi witness who testified in Spencer’s defense at his trials
  • Jim McCloskey, the founder of Centurion Ministries, the group that has aided Spencer's quest for exoneration
  • Daryl Parker, a private investigator who has helped re-examine Spencer’s case and Young’s murder
  • Jimmie Cotton, one of three eyewitnesses for the prosecution in Spencer’s original trials
  • Charles Stewart, another of three eyewitnesses for the prosecution in Spencer’s trials, now deceased
  • Sandra Brackens, a potential witness in Spencer’s defense who was not called to testify at his trials
  • Michael Hubbard, an alternative suspect in Young's death
  • Ferrell Scott, a childhood friend of Hubbard's
  • Kelvin Johnson, a friend of Hubbard's who claims to have committed robberies with him
  • Craig Watkins, a newly-elected district attorney interested in reinvestigating claims of innocence
  • Rick Magnis, the judge in Texas's 283rd District who declared Spencer innocent and recommended a new trial

New in Part III

  • Larry Meyers, the appeals court judge who wrote the majority opinion overruling Magnis’s recommendation and denying Spencer a new trial
  • Israel Williams, the younger brother of Christi Williams, who was Spencer’s sole  alibi witness in his original trial

View the entire series here, or listen to parts 1 and 2 below: