At about 10 p.m. on March 1, 1986, Juanita White returned home from work in Waco, Texas. The following morning her body was discovered—she had been beaten, raped, and murdered. The front door of the home had been kicked in.
Less than 48 hours earlier, White had gone to police with a letter she received from a prison inmate. The inmate had testified against her son, David Spence, who had been convicted of capital murder in the deaths of three teenagers in Waco in 1982. In the letter, the inmate said he had lied when he said Spence admitted involvement in the murders. He asked White for forgiveness.
The letter raised questions about the investigative work of Waco police detective Truman Simons, who seemingly had a knack of finding jailhouse informants who were adept at obtaining incriminating statements from defendants awaiting trial.
Simons’ work on the case, as well as the triple murder in Waco four years earlier, would become the subject of criticism for his use of jailhouse informants. Ultimately three men convicted of murder following investigations by Simons would be exonerated.
Spence was one of four men who had been convicted for the triple murder. Gilbert and Anthony Melendez pleaded guilty to taking part in the murders and were sentenced to life in prison after agreeing to testify against Spence.
Muneer Deeb, a Waco convenience store owner, was accused of hiring Spence to kill one of his employees. He was convicted and sentenced to death, largely on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who said Deeb admitted his role in the murders and Deeb’s business partner who said Deeb had confessed to hiring Spence. Deeb’s conviction and sentence were reversed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals which ruled that testimony from the jailhouse informant had been improperly admitted in Deeb’s trial. In 1997, Deeb was retried and acquitted.
The day after White’s body was found, Joe Sidney Williams, 19, and Calvin Washington
, 30, were arrested after police said they were in possession of the White’s car.
Williams was tried first and was convicted on June 20, 1987. The prosecution presented evidence that he was involved in the sale of some of the victim’s belongings shortly after the crime and that bite marks on the body of the victim were likely made by Williams’ teeth.
Further, a witness testified that he was employed at a motel on the nights of March 1 and March 2, 1986 and that sometime between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. he heard voices from one of the rooms and went to investigate. He said he heard Washington—whom he knew—talking with a woman.
The witness said the woman asked why Williams bit the woman and “Why did y’all beat her so much.” Washington replied, according to the witness, “We didn’t want her to identify us.”
A jailhouse informant testified that Williams admitted killing the victim, though he admitted on cross-examination that he had previously signed a statement saying that Williams told him that he did not kill the victim.
A relative of the victim testified for the defense that the items that police said Williams sold did not belong to the victim.
A defense expert testified that the bitemark could not be linked to Williams teeth.
Williams was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Washington was convicted on December 11, 1987, on virtually the same evidence.
He also was sentenced to life in prison.
While the cases were under appeal, lawyers for Washington and Williams continued to investigate the case.
In November 1991, Waco police officer Jan Price, who was initially assigned to be the lead investigator in the White murder, gave a sworn statement saying she believed that Washington and Williams were innocent.
Price said that after White’s body was found and police finished their investigation at the home, the house was secured. Price said that after a neighbor reported that the house was broken after police left, she investigated and determined that whoever broke into the house had ransacked White’s personal papers, which were kept in the bedroom that Spence used when he still lived with his mother.
Price said that within weeks of White’s murder, she developed a suspect—a man named Benny Carroll, who not long after White was sexually assaulted and killed, had committed a similar crime in the same neighborhood.
She said that when she told prosecutors in the McLennan County District Attorney’s office, she was told that Simons, who handled the investigation of the triple murder that led to Spence’s conviction, was working on the White murder.
Price later learned, she said in the affidavit, that Simons had cut a deal with a jail inmate for his immediate release in return for attempting to get Washington to incriminate himself.
She said her investigation turned up evidence that Simons routinely met with jail inmates in the District Attorney’s Office and fed them information to help them fabricate false statements and present them as truth.
“I was convinced…that Simons’ ‘investigation’ included numerous promises to jail inmates and the outright fabrication of evidence against the ‘unlucky’ suspects, Calvin Washington and Joe Sidney Williams,” Price said in the affidavit.
On October 14, 1992, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals ruled that the testimony relating to Washington’s alleged statements at the motel were improperly admitted at Williams’ trial and his conviction was set aside.
He was released from prison and the charges were dismissed on June 30, 1993. Williams received $31,250 in state compensation.
Washington continued to fight to prove his innocence and obtained a court order for DNA testing of evidence in the case. In 2001, the tests concluded that blood on a shirt found at his home was not the victim’s blood—as had been asserted at his trial.
DNA tests on semen recovered from White’s body excluded both Washington and Williams. Instead the semen was linked Benny Carroll.
Washington was released from prison on July 5, 2001, and he was pardoned by Governor Rick Perry on October 9 of that year. He later received $374,999 in compensation.
By then, Carroll was long dead. He committed suicide in 1990.
Spence was executed on April 3, 1997, proclaiming his innocence on the gurney. DNA tests on hairs found on the terry cloth used to bind the hands of two of the victims eliminated Spence, as well as the Melendez brothers.
– Maurice Possley