Recantations Lead Court to Vacate Guilty Plea

In re Personal Restraint of Clyde R. Spencer (2009)

The Washington Court of Appeals has ordered that a man who pleaded guilty to statutory rape of three children—and who then spent almost 20 years in prison—be allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. In re Personal Restraint of Clyde R. Spencer, 2009 WL 3260632, Dkt 37229-1 (Div. II 10/13/09). Chief among the court’s reasons was that two of the three children recanted.

In 1985 Spencer pleaded guilty to raping his two children, ages five and eight, and his stepson, age five. He entered an Alford plea. In such a plea, a defendant denies the truth of charges while pleading guilty to them to accept a prosecutor’s plea bargain proposal. He was sentenced, though, to life.

After Spencer spent years in unsuccessful efforts to get a court to vacate his guilty plea, the governor commuted his sentence because 1) public officials had withheld medical reports that showed no injury to the children, despite allegations of severe, repeated sexual abuse, 2) the children said Spencer photographed the alleged abuse, but no photos were ever found, 3) there were problems with the way the children had been interviewed, and the children’s statements were internally inconsistent, and 4) a supervising detective had had an affair with Spencer’s wife during the investigation.

After his release, Spencer resumed his pursuit of vindication in the courts with sworn statements by his two now-grown children. His son swore that Spencer never molested him and that he never saw him molest either of the other children. His daughter swore she had no memory that her father had molested any of the three and that she believed she would not have forgotten the molestation she was alleged to have endured.

After Spencer’s two children testified at a reference hearing, the trial court found that their oral testimony was consistent with their sworn statements. (The court did not express any finding on whether they had told the truth in recanting.)

The court of appeals’ analysis started with the standard for vacating an Alford plea because of newly discovered evidence: whether the new evidence, in light of the entire record, changes the factual basis for the plea.

The court of appeals found that Spencer’s son had adequately explained his delay in recanting. It found the failure of Spencer to present a recantation by his stepson no barrier to relief because most of the abuse was alleged to have happened when all three children were present. The court also mentioned that it was the stepson’s mother who had had the affair with the detective, casting more doubt on his allegations.

Moving beyond the recantations, the court recognized the problems with the case that the governor had cited in commuting Spencer’s sentence.

The court expressed its decision in favor of Spencer in a way that highlights the value of persistence by a defendant and his counsel:

Although the alleged irregularities may have been addressed and rejected piecemeal in previous state personal restraint and federal habeas corpus petitions, the entirety of the record, when viewed in conjunction with the new recantations, supports Spencer’s argument that the factual basis underlying his Alford plea has changed.

The Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers recently cited this case when it awarded Spencer’s lawyer, Peter Camiel of Seattle, the William O. Douglas Award, its highest honor.