Written by Chris Perri
Ben Spencer, who was wrongfully convicted of aggravated robbery and sentenced to life in prison over thirty years ago, may finally have his conviction overturned because the Dallas County District Attorney did something exceptionally rare last month for a Texas prosecutor’s office: they valued conviction accuracy over finality and agreed that Spencer is right.
Though it’s great news that an innocent man might now find relief, it’s unacceptable that the process has taken this long and been such a close call. As a post-conviction criminal defense attorney, I’m sad to report this is all too common. In fact, most wrongfully convicted people never receive justice at all. Considering March is National Criminal Justice Month, it’s important to highlight this egregious reality.
The Spencer saga exposes several flaws in our post-conviction system. The most obvious is that this man was found actually innocent thirteen years ago, yet our institutions forced him to serve over a decade more of prison time. With the help of a non-profit advocacy group, Spencer thankfully was able to reopen his case in 2020 with additional new evidence, including the fact that one of the eyewitnesses recanted his testimony in a polygraph interview and expert witnesses say that the lighting on the night in question was too dark for anyone to make a positive identification.
Surprisingly, the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office agreed with Spencer in a recent response. Now, the current district judge will decide whether to recommend that Spencer receive a new trial (or be acquitted altogether), and then the case will be forwarded to the Court of Criminal Appeals for a final decision. When the overwhelming evidence of his innocence was brought before them over a decade ago, they rejected it. With constant budget shortfalls, state officials are loathe to grant such actual innocence claims, even when a defendant’s evidence shows that it’s unlikely they committed the crime. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake again.
In my experience, prosecutors routinely oppose post-conviction writ applications, even when there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that the conviction was unjust. I’ve even talked to a prosecutor in Williamson County (the same county where Michael Morton was wrongfully convicted and spent 25 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit) who told me that they’ll never agree to a writ because it would “open up a can of worms where everyone is filing them.” Then, when a judge sees that the prosecutor’s office opposes the writ, this gives the judge cover, as the judge can adopt the State’s reasoning with regard to refusing the application.
That’s why it’s noteworthy that the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office has stuck its neck out, essentially telling the courts that they’re not going to bury their heads in the sand anymore. They’re not going to stretch the bounds of truth and reason for the sake of preserving the finality of a conviction. The Travis County D.A. recently made a similar move, advocating for the release of Rosa Jimenez. The final say will be up to the Court of Criminal Appeals. Currently, their decision is still pending.
While it’s great to see some prosecutors coming forward to admit their own mistakes, this is still far too rare. After years of suffering horrible injustices, Ben Spencer finally won the post-conviction lottery with two advantages that most inmates don’t receive:
(1) pro bono advocates working tirelessly on his behalf, and
(2) a prosecutor agreeing that his conviction was wrongful. Most people suffering from wrongful convictions aren’t so lucky.
This cannot stand. For Texas to be a fair place for all, we must reimagine our post-conviction processes and start demanding accountability from state officials.
If you or someone you know has been wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime in Texas, Chris Perri Law may be able to help. Contact us at (512) 269-0260 or visit www.chrisperrilaw.com to schedule your free consultation today.