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JOHN RAILEY: PART 2. Murder in Manteo

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of two parts – excerpt from John Railey’s new book “Murder in Manteo; Seeking Justice for Stacey Stanton.” Railey is a North Carolina journalist and author of two previous books, The Outer Banks: “The Lost Colony Murder on the Outer Banks: Seeking Justice for Brenda Joyce Holland” and “Andy Griffith’s Manteo: His Real Mayberry.” Read part 1 here.

Chapter 10: A ‘legendary lawyer’

Manteo: spring 1990 — Clifton Eugene “Cliff” Spencer was charged with the murder of Elizabeth Stacey Stanton in the spring of 1990, even though the case against him was slim at best. Despite SBI testing in North Carolina, there was no evidence other than his fingerprints linking him to the crime scene, Stacey’s apartment. He had admitted to visiting Stacey in the hours before she was murdered, hence the fingerprints. Fingerprints of another prime suspect, Norman Judson “Mike” Brandon Jr., Stacey’s ex-boyfriend, were also found in the apartment.

Brandon had identified Spencer as the potential murderer in an interview with police. Brandon was white and Spencer was black. In interviews with law enforcement officials, never video or audio recorded, and the notes often handwritten and transcribed weeks after the interviews, Spencer had denied killing Stacey.

Spencer’s family feared a court-appointed attorney from Dare County would represent him. There were few, if any, black lawyers in the county on the local court’s designated list, and even fewer with experience in death penalty cases. Spencer’s family decided to raise money to retain an attorney for Spencer.

They heard about Romallus Murphy of Greensboro through friends. His record was impressive. He had completed his undergraduate studies at Howard University, went to law school there, and ended up at the University of North Carolina School of Law, where he was the only student of color when he graduated in 1956. He hung out his shingles in Wilson.

In 1959, Murphy filed a voting rights lawsuit against the city of Wilson. He fought the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. His supporters said the case, while unsuccessful, convinced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Spencer family, impressed by Murphy’s experience, retained him in June 1990 and agreed to pay him $20,000 for Spencer’s defense (about $46,000 in 2023 dollars), money they began raising in their community. Murphy visited Spencer at Central Prison in Raleigh and had phone conversations with Spencer’s mother. But then Murphy became harder to reach.

Chapter 11: “Mrs. Spencer, they want to kill your son”

Raleigh: December 1990 — District Attorney HP Williams, who prosecuted the case against Spencer, clearly sensed weakness in Murphy. In a telephone conversation on December 4, 1990, Williams told Murphy that in exchange for Spencer’s guilty plea, the charge against him would be reduced to manslaughter and he would be sentenced to life in prison. The death penalty would be off the table.

In a follow-up letter to Murphy dated December 7, Williams wrote: “This offer remains open until the hearing of the Dare County Criminal Superior Court on January 7, 1991.”

Williams played high-stakes poker with Spencer’s future, giving Murphy a month to play or fold as the emotional holidays unfolded.

December 1990 was a tough Christmas season for Spencer at Central Prison in Raleigh, where he was being held for “safekeeping.”

Murphy, despite the money Spencer’s parents had agreed to pay him, had done little on the case — not once going to the crime scene, consulting with investigators or interviewing potential witnesses. Instead, Murphy spent much of his time on the phone with his client’s mother, telling her that the chances were slim for her son as a black man accused of murdering a white girl in a southern city. “Mrs. Spencer, they want to kill your son,” he told Spencer’s mother more than once.

Murphy paid a rare visit to Spencer at Central Prison in December. He told his client about the statements Spencer allegedly made to investigators, but said little else about the discovery evidence provided by prosecutors. “You’re in trouble,” Murphy told Spencer. “I can’t do anything for you.”

Spencer pushed back, saying the statements were untrue, noting he never signed or wrote them. “It doesn’t make any difference,” Murphy told him. “That’s what the SBI will come out and say you did that. There is no way in the world that you can win this case. I can get you a plea deal.” Spencer told his attorney, “I’m not going to take a plea deal and I don’t want a plea deal.”

During the Christmas holidays, one of Spencer’s sisters, Karen, and his parents visited Spencer at Central Prison. Before the visit, Spencer’s family met Murphy for breakfast at a Shoney’s restaurant in Raleigh. Between bites in the busy room, Murphy told them he had received the discovery.

“It doesn’t look very good for Cliff,” Murphy said. ‘He doesn’t stand a chance if he appears in court, given the things he’s said. The state actually has nothing against him, but he talked too much and made incriminating statements.”

Murphy never said that these statements might be suppressed, since Spencer never signed them and his agreement to them was questionable.

In the coming weeks, Murphy accelerated his pressure on Spencer’s parents and Spencer to accept the state’s plea offer. Spencer continued to say that he would not plead guilty to a crime he did not commit.

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