A Dallas man was released from custody Friday more than 30 years after he was convicted for a crime that prosecutors now acknowledge he did not commit.
On Wednesday, the Dallas County District Attorney’s office announced that the conviction of Benjamine Spencer should be vacated. He was released from custody Friday afternoon on a personal recognizance bond.
The case now goes to Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, which will decide whether to vacate Spencer’s conviction. If the appellate court agrees, prosecutors would have the option to retry Spencer, dismiss the case or agree to his claim of actual innocence.
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“It doesn’t mean he’s innocent, but we are continuing to investigate the actual innocence claim,” Creuzot said Friday, according to the paper. “There’s really not much left as far as evidence is concerned. But we’ll keep looking. And the other thing, too, is we have an open mind to that somebody else did this.”
Spencer was convicted in 1987 for killing a man during a robbery. He was granted a new trial the following year, was convicted again – this time for aggravated robbery – and was sentenced to life in prison.
Spencer has maintained his innocence since he was arrested. He has spent the majority of his sentence in a maximum security state prison before being released Friday.
“I know my child didn’t do it, so I have fought with him for 34-years to get him free and I’m still fighting for him," said Lucille Spencer, Benjamine's mother.
In the years that have followed, a growing number of others have joined Spencer in championing his innocence. In 2007, now-retired Dallas County Judge Rick Magnis ruled that Spencer had been unfairly convicted before a higher court overturned that decision.
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot’s Conviction Integrity Unit took up Spencer’s claims soon after the DA took office.
“We conducted an independent investigation, and when we did that, it was apparent that Spencer was wrongfully convicted,” said Cynthia Garza, chief of the CIU, in a news release.
In March 1987, Jeffrey Young was killed during a robbery, and a witness later claimed she had seen Spencer and another man exiting Young’s stolen car in a dark alleyway. At the time she claimed she could identify Spencer, the witness was at a distance of approximately a football field away, according to court testimony.
There was no physical evidence found that linked either men to the killing or to the vehicle.
That key witness was later found to have given false testimony about her expectation of receiving upwards of $25,000 in reward money, put up by the family of Dallas billionaire Ross Perot, who knew the victim’s family, that would be awarded if the trial ended in a conviction.
If Spencer is determined to be "actually innocent" he would be eligible to receive funds from the state for people who spend time behind bars for crimes they did not commit. Another judge found him "actually innocent" in 2007 but the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the verdict, the Dallas Morning News reported.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect new information about Spencer's release.