The Columbian's investigation
In 2005, The Columbian published a three-day series investigating the flaws in Clyde Ray Spencer's conviction. Read the series, titled Reversal of Fortune, by clicking on the stories below:
Vancouver, WA In a matter of minutes, Clyde Ray Spencer’s 25-year fight was over.
Spencer turned away from the judge who had just allowed him to withdraw his guilty pleas and took a few steps toward the door. He paused, tears welling in his eyes. A slight smile spread across his face and he nodded at the dozens of supporters in the crowded courtroom.
The nearly silent room erupted into applause and cheers.
After more than 25 years, the 62-year-old former Vancouver police officer was finally free.
“I didn’t put all my hopes in this,” Spencer said after the hearing. “So many times we got close.”
“It’s been 25 years, and I never thought we’d get here,” he said.
In February 1985, Spencer pleaded “no contest” — which is considered the same as a guilty plea — to sexually abusing his son, daughter and stepson. He was sentenced to two life terms, plus 14 years. He spent nearly 20 years in prison before outgoing Gov. Gary Locke commuted his sentence in 2004.
Throughout it all, Spencer maintained his innocence.
On Wednesday morning, Spencer appeared before Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis to withdraw his guilty pleas to the 11 felony charges. That same morning, Senior Deputy Prosecutor John Fairgrieve said the prosecutor’s office was dismissing the charges without prejudice.
Those were the words Spencer waited more than two decades to hear. Outside of the courtroom, Spencer was embraced by friends, family, his children and his wife.
“I can live with what I’ve got,” he said. “I didn’t expect an apology. I think that might be asking too much.”
Last year, the Court of Appeals vacated Spencer’s conviction after finding several holes in his case, including the fact that his two adult children now say the abuse never happened. The court also found “significant irregularities,” such as the withholding of medical exams showing no evidence of abuse and the fact that the supervising detective was having an affair with Spencer’s wife, whom he divorced.
The Clark County Prosecutor’s Office asked the court to reconsider and then took its pleas to the Supreme Court. In July, a Supreme Court commissioner sided with the Court of Appeals.
After an exhaustive review of the remaining evidence, Fairgrieve said the state would dismiss the charges. Fairgrieve outlined several factors in the decision. Spencer’s stepson, Matt Hanson, who is now 30, still insists he was sexually abused by Spencer. However, if the case were to go to trial again, the jury would have to rely on Hanson’s childhood memories. Also, because Spencer already served a substantial prison sentence, the most punishment he would receive, if found guilty, would be to register as a sex offender.
Given those factors, the prosecutor’s office felt the value of further prosecution was outweighed by the cost of litigation.
The office, however, stood by the process by which Spencer was sentenced 25 years ago. Spencer made statements that sounded like partial admissions of guilt and later decided to accept a plea deal, Fairgrieve said. He also called the children recanting their stories “inherently questionable,” especially since they recanted after seeing their father for the first time since 1984.
After the hearing Wednesday, Spencer said he pleaded no contest because his attorney at the time had not prepared a defense.
“If you don’t have a defense, it’s not going to be much of a guess as to what the decision’s going to be,” Spencer said.
Spencer’s daughter, 31-year-old Katie Tetz, said she remembered being rewarded for answering questions the way detectives wanted. And Spencer’s son, Matthew Spencer, said it wasn’t until he was old enough to think for himself and evaluate the accusations that he knew he had to take action to right the wrong.
Now that he’s a free man, Spencer said he intends to move to California to live with his wife of 23 years, Norma Spencer, for the first time and be near his kids, who live in Sacramento. Up until Wednesday’s dismissal, Spencer was a registered sex offender and couldn’t join Norma in California. Spencer also hopes to obtain his state license to practice psychology, a subject in which he obtained his doctorate degree.
Matthew Spencer, now 34, said he was relieved to see the charges against his father dismissed.
“It’s hard to put words to it,” he said. “It’s a big weight lifted. I have my father back.”
Spencer also spoke briefly about the 19 years he spent behind bars. At one point, his identity was revealed and 100 inmates rattled the bars of their cells chanting, “Let’s kill the cop,” Spencer said. He was later relocated to another prison to complete his sentence.
“For 17 years, I lived on edge, never knowing if this would be the last day or not,” Spencer said.
What kept Spencer going while he was in prison was, ironically, what also kept him locked up.
Spencer said his integrity and honor are why he wouldn’t admit guilt to the parole board, even if it meant an early release. During his fifth appearance before the board, Spencer was told he would die in prison.
As Spencer recounted the story Wednesday, Matthew Spencer looked at his dad through tears and smiled.
“But not today,” he said.
Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or firstname.lastname@example.org.