Was Clarence Spivey wrongfully convicted of rape 40 years ago?

‘The truth has to come out’
By JAMES ROBINSON  |  May 11, 2012

A semen stain was found on Spivey's shirt, but at the time of testing it was noted that this stain could have been as much as four months old.

The trial threw up other, smaller oddities. Police said in news reports that people in the vicinity of the abduction had seen things, but they were never again acknowledged. Officers claimed to reporters that Spivey had walked with the victim right past a police car before he was apprehended. The victim testified at trial that she had escaped and flagged a policeman down. Police observed that in his jail cell that night Spivey was seen wearing the red, white, and blue psychedelic pants he claimed to have had on the whole evening; Detective Frederick O'Connell said Spivey must have changed his pants himself inside his own jail cell.

On November 2, Spivey was found guilty on all four charges. The jury deliberated for almost 12 hours, the Providence Journal reported. Melvin Spivey, Clarence's brother, remembered shock at the verdict. "We was told that we had a good case," he said.

The defense filed a motion for a retrial that was denied. On January 20, 1973, Spivey was sentenced to 55 years in jail, in addition to the four-year sentence he was serving already for violating his probation on a prior offense. Six days after his sentencing, he was charged with attempting to escape, and in his first two years in prison added several charges — conspiracy, assault, kidnapping a federal officer — to his rap sheet.

In February 1973, Spivey filed an unsuccessful appeal of his conviction, based on the racial composition of the all-white jury and the methods of its selection. A motion to reduce his sentence was denied in March 1976 by the same judge who had passed down his original sentence.

Amid these appeals, supervisors in the Boston FBI lab had become concerned about Thomas Curran, the FBI forensic expert from Spivey's trial. According to Professor James Starrs of George Washington University, who has written on Curran's case, an FBI report filed in February of 1975 noted that Curran oscillated between testifying to graduate degrees in zoology (as in Spivey's trial), science, and psychology. He had no graduate degree at all. The report claimed Curran had issued blood analysis where no tests had been performed and ignored or distorted results.

Curran resigned immediately from the FBI and his whereabouts are unknown.

Copies of correspondence between the FBI and the Rhode Island Attorney General's office, obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request, show Curran was known to have testified in 43 cases. The FBI launched a full review in August 1975.

This correspondence shows that on September 24, 1975 William DiMitri, the prosecuting attorney, met with three FBI special agents who informed him of Curran's misconduct in misstating results and perjuring himself in regards to his qualifications.

DiMitri advised the agents that due to the identifications of the eyewitnesses and the victim "there is no doubt in his mind that the defendant is guilty of the crimes." William Reilly, Spivey's public defender, was later informed about Curran, but Spivey claims it was not until the mid-1980s that he found out about the charges leveled at Curran.

On October 7, 1975, less than two weeks after the conference between the FBI and DiMitri, a signed order by Rhode Island Attorney General Julius C. Michaelson requested the withdrawal of all exhibits — the information presented at trial — from the Spivey case. The request was approved that same day.

Henry Kinch, the current Clerk of the Providence Superior Court, says this is an extremely unusual move by today's standards. Exhibits are traditionally kept until well after appeals have been exhausted, he says. At the end of 1975, Spivey had an appeal pending, and he appealed his case well into the 1990s.

The forensic evidence was reexamined in January 1976 and 10 out of the 15 results obtained by Curran were confirmed. But the spot of type O blood found on the green trousers in Spivey's possession was now deemed to be too insignificant an amount to determine blood type.

The Curran drama fizzled out. Spivey filed two more unsuccessful post-conviction appeals, now raising the Curran issue, among previous complaints. The second of these appeals took up much of the 1990s in continuances and appeals. He was paroled to North Carolina in 1987, and within a year was arrested again for robbery. After serving out a sentence in North Carolina, he was returned to Rhode Island in 1991 as a parole violator and resumed serving time towards his original charges.

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