Radio Atlantic: No Way Out, Part I

Benjamine Spencer has been in prison most of his life for a violent crime he may not have committed. But his guilt or innocence may no longer matter to the justice system.

Nathan Bajar / The Atlantic

Updated on February 16, 2018, at 1:53 p.m. ET

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In 1987, Jeffrey Young was robbed and killed, and his body was left on a street in the poor neighborhood of West Dallas. Benjamine Spencer was tried and convicted for the attack.

Spencer was black, 22 years old, and recently married. Young was 33 and white, and his father was a senior executive for Ross Perot, one of the most prominent businessmen in Dallas. No physical evidence connected Spencer to the murder. Instead, he was convicted based on the testimony of three eyewitnesses and a jailhouse informant who claimed Spencer confessed to the crime. Spencer has now been in prison for most of his life.

From behind bars, Spencer amassed evidence to support his claim of innocence, and secured the assistance of Centurion Ministries, a group that re-examines cases of prisoners like him. Together, they were able to convince a Texas judge of Spencer’s innocence. In investigating this story, not only did we confirm Centurion’s findings, but we’ve gathered new, exculpatory evidence, some of which appears first in this special, three-episode series of Radio Atlantic.

Despite the exculpatory evidence that has emerged since Spencer’s incarceration, he has few prospects for securing a new trial, or parole. Just after this story was published, on February 16, 2018, we received word that Spencer was again denied parole, as he has been every year since he became eligible. This comes as no surprise. The district attorney and the family of the victim both opposed his parole.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles offered two reasons for denial. First, the Board ruled that Spencer has repeatedly committed crimes and is predisposed to commit crimes in the future. Before being convicted for the robbery and murder of Jeffrey Young, Spencer had never been convicted of a violent crime. He had previously been convicted of driving with a suspended license and joyriding in a stolen car. Second, the Board found that the brutal nature of the crime made Spencer a continuing threat to public safety.

With this denial, Spencer finds the most plausible path to freedom blocked once again. The next time his case comes before the Texas Parole Board will be in February 2019. There’s little reason to think the Board will vote differently then, since the crime Spencer was convicted of will never change: Jeffrey Young will still have been beaten and killed that Sunday night in March 1987. Spencer’s best, narrow hope is that new evidence uncovered by The Atlantic might contain DNA that points to a different killer. Without that, Benjamine Spencer will wake up every day in a maximum security prison, with no way out.

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

  • 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

View the entire series here, or listen to parts 2 and 3 below: