Charlotte News & Observer

Aug 28, 2005


DNA match could free convict

Inmate says he took plea bargain in killing he didn't commit



In February 1990, someone visited the second-floor apartment of Stacey Stanton, a waitress in Manteo, and stabbed her 16 times in the neck.

Clifton Spencer
Clifton Spencer

Leaving her mutilated body on her living room floor, her sweat pants, panties and shoes strewn about, the killer went to the bathroom to clean up. As the killer fled into the street outside Stanton's apartment, a bloody mint-green washcloth was left behind.

Today, Clifton Eugene Spencer, who is serving a life sentence for Stanton's murder, hopes that washcloth will help set him free. Spencer says his lawyer, convinced that he would probably be convicted, pressured him into going to prison for a killing he did not commit.

Prosecutors have acknowledged that the evidence against Spencer -- all circumstantial -- was weak. And tests on DNA recently extracted from the washcloth show that it came from a man, but not from Spencer.

Prosecutors have agreed to have that profile run through a national DNA database of convicted felons, a process that could take months. Spencer hopes it might lead authorities to the true killer.

He is one of a handful of convicts in the state to get DNA testing of the evidence in his case; a 2001 law allows them to seek the analysis if none was ever done. Among the others to use the law are Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated in 2003 of rape and murder after 18 years in prison, and death row inmate Rex Dean Penland, who won a new trial last month. Spencer would like a similar outcome.

"I feel very hopeful that we're going to get a break in this thing, and things will go my way for a change," Spencer said in a prison interview in Gatesville in northeastern North Carolina.

Spencer's lawyer, Christine Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, has been going through what evidence remains in the 15-year-old murder case to decide what to test first. It has been slow going because some evidence has been destroyed, despite a court order to the contrary; some was contaminated; and some was too deteriorated to analyze.

But the green washcloth gives hope to Mumma and Spencer that they can show that he didn't kill a woman he considered a friend.

Elizabeth Stacey Stanton, who was 28 when she died, grew up in Northfield, N.J., a small town near Atlantic City, where she was a high school cheerleader and attended beauty school. She fell in love with Manteo during summer trips as a teenager. Years later, she moved there and joined a crowd that worked days and played hard at night.

In the early afternoon of Feb. 3, 1990, a co-worker went to check on Stanton because she hadn't shown up for work at the Duchess of Dare restaurant after an alcohol-fueled evening of quarrels and tears.

The killing unnerved the almost 1,000 residents of the resort town, where no one had been murdered since 1976 and where lawyers and fishermen alike knew Stanton from the diner. Manteo police called in reinforcements. Dare County Sheriff's Office investigators and SBI agents soon arrived.

By evening, investigators dusted Stanton's apartment for fingerprints. They collected hairs found inside the victim's mouth and clutched in her hands, possibly torn out during a struggle. They photographed that morning's Virginian-Pilot newspaper lying on a living room chair a few feet from the body. They found the washcloth. They did not find a murder weapon, which they thought was a box cutter. They believed Stanton was probably killed in the early morning hours.

A brutal attack

It was a killing of exceptional brutality. Beyond the stab wounds to the neck, two others were made after Stanton was already dead. That led the medical examiner to note in his report that the "infliction of the sharply incised wounds to the breast and the vaginal region while the deceased was dying or already dead strongly suggests a fetishistic activity."

Investigators soon questioned Spencer because he was one of the last people to see Stanton alive.

Spencer, now 46, was born in Columbia, a Tyrrell County town along U.S. 64 on the way to the beach. After a stint with the Army in Germany, he settled there, married and had a daughter. But run-ins with the law led German authorities to deport him in 1987.

Spencer acknowledges that at the time of Stanton's killing he was addicted to cocaine. He was homeless, sleeping with friends and relatives in Columbia. He worked odd jobs and occasionally as a truck driver for a lumberyard.

On the day before the killing -- Friday, Feb. 2 -- Spencer had $30 in his pocket from chopping wood and cleaning a laundromat. About 6 p.m., after an afternoon of beer-drinking, Spencer ran into a friend from Manteo and decided to ride there with him.

In Manteo, Spencer wandered into the Green Dolphin, a bar that locals say attracted a rough crowd at the time. Spencer found friends inside: Stanton and her ex-boyfriend, Norman J. "Mike" Brandon Jr., a carpenter whom Spencer knew from the lumberyard.

It soon became clear that Spencer had wandered into a quarrelsome love triangle: Stanton, Brandon and Brandon's new girlfriend, Patty Rowe. Stanton had just learned that Brandon had gotten Rowe pregnant even though he and Stanton had slept together a few days earlier. Upset, Stanton left.

A little later, Spencer left also and Stanton waved him down outside her apartment across the street, he told police. Stanton, talking loudly and slurring, wanted him to ask Brandon to come talk to her. Spencer reluctantly agreed.

Back inside the Green Dolphin, Brandon refused and Spencer returned to Stanton's apartment to tell her. She was disappointed and told Spencer that she wanted to get high.

With $35 from Stanton, Spencer went in search of crack cocaine but could not find any. When he got back, Stanton was home alone, so Spencer slept there. He woke up later and then went to the home of a friend, who recalled Spencer's arrival at 4:30 a.m.

Inconsistent accounts

Investigators soon became suspicious of Spencer. They learned he had attacked a girlfriend in Germany with a pair of scissors. His statements to them about what he did that night were inconsistent.

Spencer's description of the situation when he left Stanton's apartment appeared to match what police found the next day: Stanton wasn't wearing sweat pants. She was "sprawled" on the floor.

Spencer failed a polygraph test that asked whether he killed Stanton.

He admitted washing his hands in the bathroom.

Then, on Feb. 8 -- five days after Stanton's body was found -- investigators were convinced that Spencer confessed.

According to investigators, Spencer said Stanton got angry when she woke and realized Spencer, and not Brandon, was lying next to her. He told them Stanton "got real loud and started kicking him and screaming," according to an investigator's notes.

An investigator asked Spencer whether Stanton then provoked him with a box cutter. In response, Spencer leaned forward in his chair, put his head down and nodded "yes" two or three times, according to a detective's interview notes.

Spencer says police misunderstood.

"I got tired of answering them," Spencer said during the prison interview in Gatesville. "I sighed and put my head down. They took that as a yes."

Spencer was charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty.

In December of 1990, Romallus O. Murphy, a civil rights lawyer from Greensboro, met with Spencer's parents and sister at a Shoney's restaurant in Raleigh, according to testimony at a 1993 hearing. The family had used their savings, about $6,000, to hire him.

Murphy, they later testified, told them that a black man accused of killing a white girl in Dare County didn't stand a chance of a fair trial. They said Murphy urged them to persuade Spencer to accept a deal offered by prosecutors that would spare his life.

The no-contest plea

On Jan. 7, 1991, the last day Spencer could accept the plea deal, Spencer met with Murphy. Spencer said the lawyer told him again that he had scant chance of being found not guilty. Spencer said Murphy told him that he could plead no contest, which meant he wouldn't be admitting guilt. Spencer agreed to take the plea deal.

Two days later, Spencer pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Spencer says he wanted to spare his family the pain of watching his execution. "I was battling an addiction. I had brought so much pain on so many people," he said. "I didn't want to cause any more pain for my family."

At a 1993 hearing and in a recent interview, Murphy denied ever pressuring Spencer or his family and denied saying Spencer, as a black man, wouldn't get a fair trial. Murphy said it was Spencer who suggested a no contest plea.

Since his conviction, those involved and aware of his prosecution wondered whether the right man was behind bars.

Dare County District Attorney Frank R. Parrish, who did not prosecute Spencer, thinks it would have been "extraordinarily difficult" to get a conviction had the case gone to trial. Parrish wrote that in a 2004 letter to the parole board in support of Spencer's release.

Even H.P. Williams Jr., the district attorney who prosecuted Spencer, questions whether Spencer is guilty.

"At the time, there were some serious questions about whether it could have been another individual," said Williams, an Elizabeth City lawyer. "I think the compelling evidence against Spencer was his inability to tell the truth during interviews. That doesn't mean he did it. If there is some way to prove he didn't do it, I support that. I have some questions as to whether he is guilty or not."

Spencer's fingerprints were the only physical evidence linking him to the crime scene.

Testing showed the hairs found in Stanton's hands and mouth did not come from Spencer. Wayne Morris, a friend with whom Spencer stayed after leaving Stanton's apartment, testified that there was no blood on Spencer's clothes. Investigators likewise found no blood on Spencer's clothes or in Morris' living room, where Spencer slept.

Spencer left Stanton's apartment and arrived at Morris' home at 4:30 a.m., according to Spencer and Morris.

That day's issue of The Virginian-Pilot, found inside the house only feet from Stanton's body, was not usually delivered until after 6 a.m., according to one of Spencer's earlier lawyers who investigated the matter. Mumma says that means either Stanton brought the paper inside that morning or the killer did. Either way, Mumma says, it places the time of death after Spencer left her apartment.

Spencer had an alibi for all but an hour and a half that morning after the paper was delivered. Police found no traces of blood on Spencer's clothes or in the car of the friend who drove him back to Columbia later.

A different suspect

And, according to court records, there was another suspect: Mike Brandon.

Brandon had physically abused women, according to a witness at one of Spencer's appeal hearings. Brandon's fingerprints were found in the apartment, according to the SBI lab report. And emotions ran high that night; two women who had been at the Green Dolphin testified that they heard Rowe, the pregnant girlfriend, threaten to kill Stanton if she didn't leave Brandon alone.

Neither Brandon nor Rowe responded to letters and messages seeking comment. Both live in North Carolina, but they apparently are no longer together.

Earlier this month, during a phone call to the home where Brandon lives in Chocowinity, a Beaufort County town, a woman told a reporter, "Obviously, he doesn't want to talk to you."

On the night of the murder, Brandon and Rowe left the Green Dolphin together and slept at the home of Joni Newman, according to Newman, another member of the Green Dolphin crowd. Investigators later testified in court that their suspicion turned away from Brandon because he had an alibi -- and Newman was one of those alibi witnesses.

Newman, now 44 and living in Raleigh, said in a recent interview that she cannot provide an alibi for Brandon that morning.

Newman said she woke at 3 a.m. to hear Brandon and Rowe arguing. Newman went back to bed and didn't wake again until 7:30 a.m., when Brandon called from the Duchess of Dare. "I cannot say he didn't leave my house at 3:30 a.m.," she said. "I don't know. I went back to bed."

Newman said that later that morning, when she and Brandon drove past Stanton's apartment, Brandon mentioned that he had taken Stanton's newspaper to her door earlier.

Since then, Brandon has twice been charged and once convicted of breaking into the Dare County courthouse and trying to gain access to the vault where evidence from criminal cases is held. Once, he used a power saw.

Resolving all doubt

Last year, Mumma, Spencer's lawyer, persuaded Parrish, the Dare district attorney, to agree to DNA testing.

Parrish said he felt ethically obligated to consent because such technology is now available and there was another "viable suspect" at the time of the investigation. "I thought it was appropriate to resolve every doubt," Parrish said.

This spring, police gathered DNA samples from Brandon and Rowe. So far, Mumma said, testing has neither conclusively helped Spencer nor implicated Brandon.

Most hairs found in the victim's mouth and on her hands belonged either to an animal or to Stanton or were too deteriorated for testing, Mumma said. One hair fragment from the victim's left hand didn't match anyone involved -- not Stanton, Spencer, Brandon or Rowe, she said.

And Brandon's DNA didn't match the male profile found on the washcloth, Mumma said.

The green washcloth was the last piece of evidence in Spencer's case that could be tested for DNA, she said.

Spencer's hope to prove his innocence is riding right now on whether a match can be found in the national DNA database.

(News researchers Becky Ogburn and Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com.


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