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Reversal of Fortune: Failure of justice has a high cost

A former Vancouver cop spent almost 20 years in prison after a possibly erroneous investigation

The Columbian
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Clyde Ray Spencer was convicted of sexually assaulting his children in the mid-1980's. The former Vancouver policeman spent twenty years in prison.
Clyde Ray Spencer was convicted of sexually assaulting his children in the mid-1980's. The former Vancouver policeman spent twenty years in prison. Governor Gary Locke commuted his sentence before leaving office, considering several suspicious circumstances surrounding the conviction. Photo Gallery

Ray Spencer had spent more time behind bars than anyone else convicted of child sexual abuse in Washington when he was freed just after Christmas 2004.

Twenty years ago, a Clark County Superior Court judge handed the Vancouver police officer two life sentences plus 14 years in prison after Spencer pleaded no contest to raping his son, daughter and a stepson.

Today, there is considerable evidence Spencer was the subject of a flawed investigation and court process.

As Gov. Gary Locke put it when commuting Spencer’s sentence, “There were a number of troubling aspects of the investigation.”

In the commutation order, Locke cited that a supervising detective and Spencer’s wife had an affair; that detectives withheld medical exams that found no evidence of abuse; and that Spencer’s 9-year-old son denied the molestations for eight months, changing his story only after a detective threatened him with a lie detector test.

Locke also noted that a renowned child abuse prosecutor found significant problems with the investigation, including the techniques used to interview Spencer’s daughter.

Spencer’s story is a cautionary tale in a world hypersensitive to any hint of child sexual abuse. More people have been erroneously sent to prison for rape and sexual assault than any other crime except homicide, according to a 15-year University of Michigan study of convictions overturned by DNA evidence.

“This is the kind of case that lays the criminal justice system bare,” said Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law.

A false conviction not only destroys the life of the defendant, but also the lives of the children coerced into making the accusations. It creates “untold damage on all sides,” Warden said.

In child sex abuse cases there is rarely physical evidence. The cases instead turn almost exclusively on what the alleged victim tells police. And victims are easily coerced accidentally or purposefully to provide false testimony.

“I’ve seen very similar scenarios” to Spencer’s, said Warden, who was briefed on the case. “We know in many cases children have given false statements and are inclined to say what adults in positions of authority want them to say.”

Consider the case of a 7-year-old Chicago boy whom police persuaded to confess to a murder in 1998. DNA evidence later showed an adult committed the crime. “That’s very similar to what you are talking about here,” Warden said.

To ensure that interviews are conducted fairly and documented accurately, Portland-based CARES Northwest one of the largest child abuse assessment agencies in the nation has videotaped victim interviews since 1987.

Clark County still refuses to videotape such interviews.

Easy target

Ray Spencer lives in a 1950s-era apartment in Renton that has carpeting from the 1970s, a blue couch and a glass coffee table bearing a Bible. An inexpensive bookcase holds both cassettes and a CD player.

Such decor reflects the disjointed decades of Spencer’s life. When he got out of prison four days after Christmas, he didn’t know how to ask for a bus transfer, make a cell phone call or use a debit card. Today, the former federal air marshal and U.S. Customs agent earns a bit more than minimum wage working in a machine shop.

Spencer, 57, is short and muscular, a crisp dresser with a frank manner. He struggles to explain why he became the subject of the investigation.

His behavior made him an easy target. He was a philanderer. He wasn’t afraid to step on toes. He was too trusting of a criminal justice system that he knew well enough to regard skeptically. And he came under scrutiny as child sex abuse hysteria swept the country, eventually making a mockery of criminal justice systems from Wenatchee to North Carolina.

“The prevailing thought was children would tell the truth if prodded to do so,” said Warden, of the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “No one thought children would make things up out of whole cloth.”

Police also are under tremendous pressure to investigate crimes such as child sex abuse even if there isn’t much evidence, said Samuel R. Gross, a University of Michigan law professor who studies false convictions.

Prosecutors cite at least two reasons for pursuing the Spencer case.

After months of questioning, two trips to a psychiatric hospital and heavy doses of antidepressants, Spencer started telling investigators he couldn’t remember molesting anyone. Prosecutors say that inability to remember is proof of Spencer’s guilt.

Warden sees it as a natural byproduct of relentless pressure from investigators determined to make a suspect confess.

Prosecutors also cite King County Deputy Prosecutor Rebecca Roe’s analysis of the case. A well-known child abuse expert, Roe had rejected the case because of numerous flaws. But Roe also mentioned she believed Spencer’s daughter was abused and probably by Spencer.

Missing evidence

The case against Spencer is equally notable for what is missing:

Spencer’s home was never searched, despite allegations that illegal sexual acts had been photographed. Jim Peters, who was then a Clark County deputy prosecutor and is now an assistant U.S. attorney in Boise, Idaho, dismisses the failure to find the lurid photos.

“I don’t know where we would have looked,” Peters said.

Gov. Locke, a former prosecutor, noted the failure to find the alleged photographs in his commutation order.

Sharon Krause, who throughout the 1980s was the Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s lead child sexual abuse investigator, was the main detective on the Spencer case. Krause, who retired from the department in 1995, did not respond to interview requests.

Spencer’s first wife, DeAnne, the mother of his biological children, told a Sacramento County, Calif., detective she had quit letting men stay at her house after one man “bothered” her children, according to police files. Detectives never pursued this or other leads, focusing solely on Spencer.

Today, DeAnne Spencer maintains her children never were alone with another man.

Despite allegations of repeated, vicious sexual attacks on the three children, medical examinations of two of the alleged victims found no sign of abuse. (The 9-year-old boy was never examined.) Detectives didn’t provide the examination results to Spencer’s defense attorney a violation of a federal law that requires prosecutors to share evidence favorable to the defendant. The medical reports surfaced eight years later, during an unsuccessful attempt to appeal Spencer’s convictions.

Detectives never interviewed other children Spencer had the opportunity to abuse, including several nieces and nephews and the children of a Vancouver woman with whom he lived for two years. That’s a glaring error, child abuse experts say, considering pedophiles generally prefer to prey on children who aren’t their own.

Today, these nieces and nephews vigorously defend Spencer. Three testified before the Washington Clemency and Pardons Board on his behalf.

“I spent 18 years with him, my cousins spent 18 years with him, and we never heard of anything untoward,” said nephew Randy Preston. “I went on road trips with him. I went camping with him. I went fishing with him. He was great.”

Veteran Portland therapist Jim Home, who worked with sex offenders in Washington and Oregon prisons, is struck by the fact that Spencer’s nieces and nephews defend him.

“He’s a lot more likely to molest his nephews” than his own children, Home said. Based on his experience with other sex offenders, “I would think one of (the nephews) would come forward. It’s a red flag that they all say: ‘No way.”’

Home also is struck that Spencer steadfastly maintained his innocence for more than 20 years, even though he could have gotten out of prison far sooner by saying he was guilty and undergoing treatment.

“Most people will come around and say they did it,” Home said.

The defense attorney, alleged victims and detectives in this case refused to answer questions or did not respond to requests for interviews.

Did you know?

  • In eight years in office, Gov. Gary Locke either commuted sentences or issued pardons for 68 people.
  • The Washington State Clemency and Pardons Board unanimously recommended to Locke that Ray Spencer’s sentence be commuted. The board consisted of a retired King County judge, a retired King County police officer, a Yakima County police chief, a federal public defender and a Seattle attorney.
  • Spencer was the only person convicted of a sex offense to be released by Locke.

Irregularities in Ray Spencer Case

Gov. Gary Locke’s commutation order and court records refer to several flaws in the case against Ray Spencer, including:

  • Spencer’s estranged wife had an affair with a supervising detective.
  • Detectives withheld medical evidence supporting Spencer’s contention that he was innocent.
  • A King County deputy prosecutor known for her expertise in child sex abuse recommended dropping the case after the first victim came forward, citing significant problems with the evidence, including “questions about fact vs. fantasy.”
  • Spencer’s court-appointed defense attorney, James Rulli, now a Clark County Superior Court judge, did not attempt to interview the alleged victims until a few weeks before trial even though the case had been initiated eight months earlier. He also didn’t interview Spencer’s wife, arrange for any defense witnesses, challenge any of the prosecution’s evidence or request a hearing to determine the credibility of the child witnesses.
  • Spencer maintained his innocence both under hypnosis and sodium Amytal (“truth serum”) facts that were never mentioned in court. “I have never observed an individual who can withhold information under the conditions of Amytal and hypnosis,” wrote Dr. Lawrence Halpern in a 1986 letter filed with Spencer’s first appeal.
  • Spencer was taking heavy doses of antidepressants when he entered his no-contest plea. The drugs and depression made it impossible for Spencer to intelligently participate in his own defense, said Halpern, a University of Washington neuropharmacologist who analyzed Spencer’s medical records a year after he was sentenced.
  • One alleged victim, a 9-year-old boy, denied Spencer abused him for eight months and changed his story only after a Clark County sheriff’s detective threatened him with a lie detector test. Once the detective elicited allegations from the boy that he had suffered frequent, violent abuse, the boy was not examined by a doctor.
  • Spencer was handed two life terms plus 14 years with no pre-sentence investigation.
  • Results from a recent comprehensive psychological exam and a recent polygraph test support Spencer’s claims he never sexually abused anyone.

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