AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The sons of David Spence, who was executed for the 1982 murders of two teenagers in Waco, claim in a lawsuit that Texas bribed witnesses, coerced confessions and used junk science to make a case against their father.
The bodies of three teenagers were found in a park near Lake Waco in 1982. Raylene Rice and Jill Montgomery had been raped and stabbed repeatedly; Kenneth Franks had been stabbed at least 20 times.
The state called it a murder-for-hire gone wrong. Prosecutors said a convenience store owner hired Spence to kill one of his employees, but Spence and his alleged accomplices, Gilbert and Anthony Melendez, mistakenly killed a different girl and then the two other teens because they were witnesses.
David Spence was executed on April 3, 1997. Gilbert Melendez died in prison in 1998. Anthony Melendez died in prison in January.
Spence’s sons, Jason and Joel Spence, say in the April 19 lawsuit in Travis County Court that their father and the other suspects were all wrongfully accused.
Attorneys with the Dallas-based English Law Group, representing the Spence brothers and the estate of Anthony Melendez, asked the court for a declaration of the two men’s innocence, and compensation for their wrongful imprisonment and deaths.
“Newly discovered testimony, new scientific methods and evaluations, and hidden evidence, uphold all of their defenses,” the complaint states.
The convenience store owner, Muneer Deeb, was acquitted in 1993 after retrial.
“It is intellectually inconsistent and dishonest to convict David, Gilbert and Tony when Deeb, the purported mastermind, was in fact not guilty,” the Spence brothers say in the lawsuit.
The Melendez brothers avoided the death penalty through confessions that the Spence brothers say were coerced. They call it a conspiracy between the Melendezes’ court-appointed attorneys, then-McLennan County District Attorney Vic Fezell and a sheriff’s deputy named Truman Simons. The Melendez brothers later recanted their confessions.
Anthony Melendez claimed that his 1985 confession and trial testimony “were scripted for him by Simons, and coerced by the state and his own attorneys, who repeatedly assured him that if he fought the charges, he would end up in the death chamber,” according to the new complaint.
It claims that Anthony Melendez had an “ironclad” alibi that put him hundreds of miles away from Waco at the time of the murders.
Spence, convicted in 1985, maintained his innocence until his execution in 1997.
The Spence brothers say that Simons implicated their father in the murders to salvage the theory he had come up with while investigating the case as a Waco police officer.
Simons was working as a guard in the county jail where Spence was being held on an assault charge. He collected statements from other inmates who claimed that Spence bragged about having committed the Lake Waco murders, but the Spence brothers say the inmates were paid for their statements.
Simons “apparently had many detractors in law enforcement,” including former Waco Police Chief Larry Scott who said he had “come to the conclusion that Simons used illegal methods to close cases,” according to the complaint.
After David Spence was convicted, Simons investigated the 1986 rape and murder of Spence’s mother, Juanita White. The state later granted a full pardon to Calvin Washington, who was convicted in the case. The Spence brothers say in the complaint that prosecutors were “profoundly troubled” by Washington’s conviction, and concluded that Simons likely fabricated the case.
They say their father was convicted on the basis of bite-mark evidence, has “been proven to be junk science and would never be admissible in a court today.”
The Texas Forensic Science Commission published a 1,300-page report on forensic bite-marks, otherwise known as “forensic odontology,” in 2016. The commission found that “the overwhelming majority of existing research does not support the contention that bite-mark comparison can be performed reliably and accurately from examiner to examiner due to the subjective nature of the analysis.”
The commission noted there significant quality-control and infrastructure differences between forensic odontology and other forensic science disciplines.
According to the lawsuit, the forensic odontologist who matched bite-marks on the girl victims’ bodies was later discredited in other cases, and the medical examiner who conducted the autopsies said in her report that the supposed bite-marks were likely caused by ants or maggots.
A panel of forensic odontologists was given the Lake Waco crime scene photographs and five sets of dental molds, including David Spence’s. One panelist wrote to the doctor who assembled the panel.
“Is the purpose of this exercise [to] find marks on this body, more likely than not made by insects or artifacts, and call it a human bite mark?” wrote Richard Souviron, chief forensic odontologist at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office. “And then, even more outrageously, attempt to match the marks in the photographs, which are not even identifiable as bite marks to a set of teeth? It borders on the unbelievable.”
No DNA evidence ever linked any of the suspects to the crimes.
Gary Cantrell, a paralegal with the English Law Group, said “a lot” of evidence collected at the time of the murders has never been tested.
“We hope to show that there aren’t any matches to any of our guys,” he said.
Cantrell said there have been no cases in Texas in which wrongfully executed or wrongfully imprisoned people have been granted habeas corpus relief after death.
“Do you get off the hook just because the person that you’re doing wrong by dies? It doesn’t seem right, does it?” Cantrell asked. “Approaching it first as a declaratory judgment action is novel, and we’re hopeful that we can get some traction.”