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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

The Accusation: When the Victims Are Not Victims at All

Ray Spencer, center, with his son, Matt Spencer, and his daughter, Katie Spencer Tetz. MARK MAHANEY FOR ESQUIRE
Ray Spencer, center, with his son, Matt Spencer,
and his daughter, Katie Spencer Tetz. (Esquire)
What is it like to have a family member murdered and find out the wrong person went to prison? What is it like to be a rape victim who later discovers you identified the wrong man in a police lineup? We felt that such individuals would have unique feelings about the criminal justice system, and the initiative led to a couple of short pieces.

But in the Ray Spencer case there was a twist: The victims were not victims at all. Ray was convicted of sexually assaulting his children in 1985 and served 19 years in prison. Not long after he was released, his children began working to clear his name.


ON CHRISTMAS EVE IN 2004, Katie Spencer Tetz, a twenty-five-year-old job recruiter living in Sacramento, California, was sitting on the floor near her Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, when the phone rang. It was her mother, DeAnne, with news: After nineteen years, Katie's father, Ray, was going to be released from prison. The last time Katie saw Ray she was six years old.

She hung up, grabbed her keys, and lunged for the door with no destination in mind, just a primal urge to move. Her husband, Mike, ran over to hold her as she sobbed by the door, in the grip of fear and grief she rarely let herself feel.Katie barely knew her father, but his life was the central mystery of her own. He was the reason she could never make sense of her earliest childhood memories, and why she wasn't sure she wanted to.

For most of Katie's life, Ray had been locked away in a Washington state prison, serving two life sentences for violently molesting Katie, her brother and their step-brother. The case—a 1985 conviction on eleven counts of statutory rape—was based largely on what the children told investigators under questioning. Almost two decades passed before a new defense team discovered disturbing flaws in the investigation. The governor had commuted Ray's sentence, and he was getting out.

Katie didn't know the full story. She knew only what DeAnne had told her growing up: Ray had touched her "inappropriately." Katie didn't remember any of the abuse, but DeAnne explained that Katie had most likely buried the terrible things her father had done to her so deeply that she couldn't access any recollections of them.

That never felt right to Katie, though. She had long nursed a suspicion that the memories weren't there because they didn't exist, and her father had been innocent all along. If that was the case, it meant she and her older brother, Matt, had played a role in putting their father in prison.

Now that he was set to be released, Katie and her brother might see him again, and come to terms with the fact that a few moments of their childhood—moments Katie could scarcely remember, and moments Matt remembered all too well—had derailed their entire family.

WHEN HER PARENTS DIVORCED in 1979, Katie was still a baby; Matt was three. They lived in Sacramento with DeAnne, who struggled to provide for them, working as a janitor and in various office jobs. Twice a year, the children visited their father in Washington state, where he worked as a police officer. He was known among friends as cocksure and flirtatious, but also as a doting father, who fished and camped with his children. Katie would hunt for blackberries and snap peas in his rambling backyard. A few years after the divorce, he moved in with his second wife, Shirley, and her son, also named Matt. When everyone was together, Ray's son became Big Matt, and Shirley's was known as Little Matt.

In August 1984, Ray attended a police conference out of town, leaving all three children with Shirley. When he returned, she was despondent. One night, she told him, she and the children had been watching a movie before bed when Katie, then five, tried to stick her hand under Shirley's robe and between her legs. "What are you doing?" Shirley asked, startled. "I'm trying to touch your pee-pee," Katie said. She said it was something she often did with her daddy and other members of her family.

By the time Shirley told Ray this, his children had already returned to Sacramento. Ray was stunned: Could "daddy" be a reference to some boyfriend of DeAnne's? He went into cop mode, sitting Shirley down and telling her to write out everything she could recall Katie saying. He called the local police, the sheriff, and Child Protective Services offices in both Vancouver, Washington, and Sacramento.

In Sacramento, police did not pursue a full investigation. But Sharon Krause, an investigator with the Clark County Sheriff's Office in Washington, took an interest in the case and visited Katie in Sacramento several times.

Krause was known for her ability to win the trust of traumatized children, a skill that was increasingly in demand. By 1984, a consensus had developed among social workers, psychologists, and law enforcement that sexual crimes against children had been chronically underreported and under-punished. In her police report, Krause wrote that Katie was shy at first; then she described a moment when "my dad's wiener was sticking up." Katie grabbed two dolls Krause had brought and demonstrated various sexual acts. "My daddy was being bad," she said.

RAY DIDN'T KNOW the full extent of the accusations. He agreed to take two polygraphs, and immediately after the second one, Krause's supervisor, Mike Davidson, told Ray he hadn't passed.

In January 1985, five months after Shirley told Ray about Katie's strange behavior, Ray was charged with sexually assaulting Katie. Over the next few months, more accusations followed: Little Matt, age four, said Ray had raped him in a bathtub and nearly drowned him. Big Matt, then nine, told Krause he had been raped, too, and not just by his father; he said Ray had invited other police officers over to participate. Investigators never gleaned enough detail to charge anyone else.

After Katie's accusation, Ray shifted from rage into a kind of disassociated horror. "As a cop, it's all black and white," he says. "Suddenly, I'm looked at as the bad guy." He was ordered by his police department to stay home and was often alone. "You think about what it's going to take to get up the next morning," he says of that time. "You just sit there and obsess. You think about every facet."One day, it was too much to bear, and Ray pulled out his .357. "I remember a little voice in the back of my head saying, 'Hey, maybe for your children's sake, you should get some help.'" 

He called a suicide hotline and was whisked off to a psychiatric hospital, where he let himself break. "They found me holed up in the corner, crying," he says. "I don't remember much of it other than the attendants rushing in."

Drugs stabilized him enough that he could return home, but they also fogged his mind as the accusations from Little Matt and Big Matt started to pile up. What if somehow he had molested the children but just couldn't remember it? If that was the case, he thought, then he deserved to be locked up. "My God, why can't I remember?" he told investigators. "What's the matter with me?" He agreed to try sodium amytal—truth serum—and took so much that it knocked him out. Still, no memories."

In the haze, there was a niggling in my stomach that something wasn't right," Ray says. But as the trial approached, he was presented with what he saw as an impossible choice: force his own children to relive on the witness stand whatever unspeakable things had happened to them, or confess to something he couldn't remember. That May, Ray decided to take an Alford plea—similar to a "no contest" plea, acknowledging the strength of the case against him without admitting guilt—and was sentenced to two life sentences, plus fourteen years.

➤ Click here to read the full article

Source: The Marshall Project, Maurice Chammah, May 21, 2017

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