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Inside The Gruesome Murder Of Stacey Stanton And The Wrongful Conviction Of Her Black Friend

Inside The Gruesome Murder Of Stacey Stanton And The Wrongful Conviction Of Her Black Friend

Elizabeth Stacey Stanton was a waitress in Manteo, North Carolina, whose brutal 1990 stabbing murder shocked the small town. Her friend Clifton Spencer was wrongfully imprisoned for it, despite almost no evidence.

Stacey Stanton’s murder shook the quiet town of Manteo, home to only a couple of thousand residents, most of whom liked the 28-year-old waitress. On Feb. 3, 1990, someone stabbed her to death and horribly desecrated her body.

Stanton was found naked on her apartment floor, clutching hair in her hand, having been stabbed 16 times. She had two fatal throat slashes and mutilations to her breast, chest, and vagina. The autopsy on Feb. 4 revealed the killer inflicted these injuries after she was already dead.

“The sharply incised wounds to the breast and vagina region while the deceased was dying or already dead strongly suggest a fetishistic activity on the part of the assailant,” L.S. Harris, the Greenville County Medical Examiner, wrote in his report.

Stanton was last seen with her friend, a Black man named Clifton Spencer. Despite no solid evidence linking him to the crime and a lab report showing no “Negroid hair” at the scene, Spencer was charged with her murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Murder Of Stacey Stanton

Elizabeth Stacey Stanton was born on Nov. 16, 1961, in New Jersey. She moved to Manteo in 1987 and worked as a waitress at the Duchess of Dare Restaurant. Her apartment was nearby on Ananias Dare Street, so her absence from work on Feb. 3, 1990, was unusual.

Clifton Spencer lived in Columbia across the Alligator River. Unemployed, he slept on couches, did odd jobs, and used cocaine. He visited Manteo with a friend and saw Stanton at the Green Dolphin Pub on Feb. 2. Brandon was there with his new girlfriend Patty Roe. Stanton left upset.

When Spencer left, he saw Stanton outside her place waving him in. She asked him to convince Brandon to talk to her, but Brandon declined. Spencer returned to her apartment, and they drank vodka for a few hours. Stanton gave Spencer $35 to buy crack cocaine, but he returned empty-handed later.

“We were in the living room, and we’d been drinking, and we both kind of fell asleep on the floor,” said Spencer. “She kind of nudged me to wake up. And I got up and left. I went to my friend Wayne’s house and waited outside until he came home. Then, we both went in and crashed on chairs at his place.”

Stanton was found dead when a coworker checked on her at 2 p.m. that day. Local police, the Dare County Sheriff’s Office, and the State Bureau of Investigations investigated. There was no evidence of rape or forced entry, but a bloody washcloth was found.

Harris determined that Stanton died in the “early morning hours” of February 3. Her neighbor Nancy Austin heard her come home at 1 a.m. but didn’t notice any noise. Since both Brandon and Spencer’s fingerprints were found in the apartment and Brandon had an alibi, all suspicion fell on Spencer, who had a criminal record.

Clifton Spencer Goes To Prison

Wayne Morris confirmed that Spencer arrived at 4:30 a.m. This still gave Clifton Spencer enough time to kill Stacey Stanton, but there was no blood on his clothes or in Morris’ home where he slept. Oddly, the local newspaper, typically delivered after 6 a.m., was found just feet from Stanton’s body.

There were only 13 identifiable fingerprints at the scene. A March 1990 physical evidence report from the SBI showed that seven were Spencer’s, four were Stanton’s, and two were Brandon’s. Brandon had an alibi for the morning of February 3, while Spencer was picked up in Columbia on February 4.

“When I got back to Columbia the next day, a sheriff’s deputy called me over to his car and asked me to come to the department,” said Spencer. “I didn’t know what he wanted. But when he called the dispatcher, he said he had the murder suspect.”

While being questioned without a lawyer, Clifton Spencer maintained his innocence. Police noted his previous arrests for drug possession and attacking an ex-girlfriend with scissors. After agreeing to a polygraph test, he allegedly failed when asked if he killed Stanton. He was indicted on first-degree murder charges on April 2.

Spencer was represented by NAACP attorney Romallus O. Murphy and pleaded not guilty at the Dare County courthouse on June 11, 1990. Murphy filed six pre-trial motions, including a request for a change of venue to get a fairer jury pool, but then began urging Spencer to plead no contest.

“I told them I’d rather die than plead guilty to something I didn’t do,” recalled Spencer. “That lawyer told my mom I’d be sentenced to die if I took my case to trial. ‘A black man accused of killing a white woman in a small, Southern town doesn’t have much chance,’ that NAACP guy said.”

Clifton Spencer pleaded no contest to second-degree murder on Jan. 9, 1991, and was sentenced to life in prison.

How Further Revelations About Stacey Stanton’s Murder Led To Clifton Spencer’s Release

On April 24, 1992, Spencer filed a 77-page petition arguing that his attorney had forced him to accept the plea deal. The court appointed Nags Head lawyer Edgar Barnes in May. Barnes was confident Spencer was innocent and contacted District Attorney Frank Parrish to request a more thorough investigation.

“I sincerely and personally believe Clifton Spencer to be innocent and will continue to fight to see that he receives due justice,” he wrote. “I ask you to consider reopening this case or at least let me have access to all the police officers’ investigation files to ensure justice has been served.”

On April 22, 1993, however, Judge Gary Trawick ruled that Spencer voluntarily pleaded no contest and had to serve his full sentence. By June 1995, Barnes became a District Court judge himself and could no longer represent Spencer — who shared a cell with 35 others and had no air-conditioning.

In October 1995, a private investigator gave Spencer two polygraphs — which Spencer passed. Meanwhile, any record of Spencer’s supposed polygraph in 1990 was nowhere to be found. In 1997, a witness who had seen Stanton at the pub on Feb. 2 claimed Brandon’s girlfriend had threatened her.

Brandon was arrested for breaking into the Dare County courthouse and trying to break into the vault containing evidence from criminal cases.

Spencer’s luck started to change when he demanded new DNA tests from the washcloth in 2005. While they failed to implicate another suspect, they didn’t contain Spencer’s DNA. With new lawyers and help from the Innocence Project, he was finally released in July 2007 — and now works as a truck driver.

Though Stacey Stanton’s horrific murder remains tragically unsolved after more than two decades, the miscarriage of justice suffered by Clifton Spencer was finally set right.

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