It’s taken almost 30 years, but justice has finally come to Clyde Ray Spencer. On February 3rd, a jury in federal court in Tacoma, Washington awarded him $9 million for the malicious denial of his civil rights by police officers and prosecutors there. Here’s the latest (The National Trial Lawyers, 3/26/14). And here’s a post I did on the case back in 2009.
In 1985, Spencer was an honorable man and father serving Tacoma as a police officer. He had two children, Matt, 9 and Katie, 5, and a stepson who was four. His wife was having an extramarital affair with a police sergeant, Michael Davidson, and decided to divorce Spencer. Not long after their divorce was final, she went to Davidson claiming Spencer was sexually abusing the children.
Davidson, eager to please his paramour, went right to work. He put Detective Sharon Krause on the case and soon she had the children on videotape claiming their dad was a brutal serial pedophile. Faced with that evidence, Spencer entered an “Alford” plea meaning that he maintained his innocence but admitted that a jury could find him guilty. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences plus 14 years and began serving his time.
But all was not right with the case against him. Eventually he found a lawyer who was willing to do the hard work of overturning a plea entered into by a man considered the worst sort of monster. What that investigation turned up was the entire fabrication of a case by police and prosecutors. Here are a few of the findings of the civil jury in federal court this past February.
# Spencer’s wife, who called policed about the abuse claims, was secretly having an affair with Sgt. Davidson, who led the investigation of Spencer. This was not revealed until after Spencer was in prison.
# Spencer’s natural children Matt Spencer and Katie Tetz testified that they were never abused.
# The stepson maintained that we was abused. However, he has a long criminal record for crimes including burglary and forgery. The authorities reduced his sentence in exchange for his testimony against Spencer.
# The detectives concealed medical exams showing that Spencer’s son and daughter were not abused.
# They also fabricated polygraph test results to make it look as if Spencer was lying when questioned about the abuse claims.
# Deputy prosecutor James Peters made a video showing that he coaxed Spencer’s daughter to say her father abused her. The video, which undermines the prosecution’s case, was not found until 2009 in Det. Krause’s garage.
# Det. Krause held unorthodox meetings with the Spencer children, interviewing them in unrecorded sessions, buying them gifts and candy. She told the children their father was “sick” and that they they could heal him by accusing him of sexual crimes.
# Attorney Zellner charged that Det. Krause was motivated by advancing her career, and that after she started working in the field the conviction rate in child abuse cases rose by 800%. She had been a hotel clerk and met police officers who came to the hotel bar. She joined the Clark County Sheriff’s Department and became a detective investigating child sex abuse, even though she had no training in the subject area.
It’s far worse than that, though. Not only did Krause bribe little children with ice cream and gifts to say their father had abused them, she hounded nine-year-old Matt for several months until he finally agreed to say what she wanted. Think about that. The boy was nine and she kept after him for months until he finally gave her what she wanted. He’s since said that he did so in an effort to get her to leave him alone.
Amazingly, Krause kept the videotapes in her garage even though they clearly demonstrated the exact wrong way to conduct an investigation into allegations of child sexual abuse. More than any other single piece of evidence, it was the tapes that eventually exonerated Spencer and subjected Krause to civil liability.
We understand why Davidson pursued Spencer; he was having an affair with his wife. But what motivated Krause to fabricate evidence against a plainly innocent father? Blind ambition was part of it. She wanted to advance in the department and for her, sex crimes against children paid off like a slot machine. Note that the department’s conviction rate in those cases rose by 800% once Krause arrived on the scene. So it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that there were others Krause railroaded using much the same techniques she used against Spencer and his children.
But of course the wrongdoing didn’t stop with the interviews of the children. The police falsified polygraph results and hid exculpatory medical records while prosecutors chipped in by hiding evidence of coaching the children.
Spencer was eventually exonerated by an order of the governor in 2004 and his plea was finally overturned. As far as we know, he is no longer required to register as a sex offender in the state. And now, he’s got a verdict in his pocket for $9 million.
Questions remain. Principally, how is it possible for the police to (a) fabricate evidence out of nothing in a case in which (b) there was literally no evidence of guilt against (c) a man who was one of their own? What is it in the minds of people like Davidson, Krause and prosecutor Peters that allows them to do what they did? What makes it possible for them to intentionally send a man they know to be innocent to prison for the rest of his life? That type of moral bankruptcy is hard to fathom. Did Krause never set up a balance scale in her mind and mentally weigh, on one hand, the modest bump her career might get from Spencer’s conviction against the enormity of incarcerating a man for life for a “crime” neither he nor anyone else had committed?
I confess, it’s hard for me to grasp.
One thing that’s certain, 1985 was close to the very apex of the hysteria over child sexual abuse as exemplified by cases like McMartin Preschool, Fells Acres Daycare and countless others. In those, no claim by adult-coached children was too bizarre for supposedly sane police and prosecutors to believe. Sex in space ships? Check. Rape by 16-inch butcher knives that left not a mark on the victims? Check. Sex in trees in broad daylight in public places that no one witnessed? Check there too.
To any person possessed of normal faculties, the claims were absurd, impossible. And of course the kids only made them to please adults. The adults would ask them questions and if they denied abuse, the questioning would continue. It would continue until the kids gave the answers the adults wanted, and then it would stop and little Andy or Jenny could go out and play. Children readily learn how to please adults, and, in all those many horrible fabricated cases, that’s exactly what they did.
Which brings us to the inescapable conclusion that the crazy testimony by the children was not theirs, but the adults’. The children gave the adults what they wanted, and what they wanted was tales of sex in space ships, trees and the like. The testimony of the children who attended McMartin or Fells Acres says nothing about them. It says a lot of things – disturbing things – about the adults.
I’d say the same about Sharon Krause, Michael Davidson and James Peters. Even though it didn’t include intergalactic sex, what little Matt and Katie told them was not the children’s evidence but that of the police and prosecutors. It was what they wanted and they bribed, cajoled and browbeat the kids into giving it to them.
Spencer’s lawyer in his civil suit told jurors the frame-up was all about “sex and ambition.” But that’s just the easy explanation, the one the jurors were likely to buy. It’s not the whole story. The whole story includes the psyches of adults so steeped in the cultural zeitgeist that any claims by children of sexual abuse, no matter how patently untrue, were to be believed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the issue that’s been almost entirely overlooked. The simple fact is that a mother – Spencer’s ex – wanted a father – Spencer – out of his children’s life, and with essentially no effort on her part, the legal system accommodated her wishes. She complained to Davidson and then sat back and watched the wheels of the criminal justice system crush an innocent man.
In that way, these events that happened almost 30 years ago are altogether current. True, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of what must be done when allegations of child sexual abuse are raised. An entire cottage industry has grown up around how to interview children in order to catch the guilty while letting the innocent go free. But let’s not pretend that the judicial system doesn’t go to bat for any mother who cries “Abuse!” in order to shut a father out of the lives of his children.
Family courts do that every day, but they’re not the only guilty ones. Child protective agencies are legendary for ignoring fathers even when they might provide safe, nurturing alternatives to mothers deemed unfit to care for children. Courts hearing cases of mothers who abduct their children to faraway countries are always ready to listen to their claims of child abuse against him, despite the fact that the Hague Convention ousts them of jurisdiction of those matters. And then there are the many family court professionals who opine on child custody matters. Time and again we see them give a pass to the most outrageous and untrue claims of abuse against fathers in much the same way Sharon Krause and the others did.
But that would mean we still live in the bad old days of McMartin Preschool and the rest. And that can’t be true, can it?