Like any proud father, James Spencer is eager to show off photos of his son.
Seated at a desk in his Inglewood apartment on a recent Friday evening, the 59-year-old shuffled legal documents, news clippings and letters until he unearthed a photo of a young man wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie — Brandon Spencer at age 18, suited up for work as a security guard.
Now the younger Spencer wears a different uniform. He has recently begun serving a 40 year prison term for opening fire at a Halloween party two years ago at the University of Southern California.
When neighbors, friends and family heard that Spencer had been charged with four counts of attempted murder, many reacted with disbelief. They thought: “Nah, it can’t be Brandon.”
Now they are attempting to build a bridge between the spirited kid they knew and the gang-banger portrayed in the news. Some are still asking one another: How could a young man from a supportive middle-class family get shipped to prison for his entire adult life?
The ten-inch scar on Spencer’s chest is a clue to the story.
A tale of two shootings
In the summer of 2011, several hundred college-age youths gathered at the “I Love College Party” complete with a DJ and full-bar at The Proud Bird, a buffet-style restaurant decked out in aviation bric-a-brac near the Los Angeles International Airport. Spencer showed up around 11 p.m., just in time to feel a bullet pierce his abdomen as he strode across the parking lot.
Surgeons at the UCLA Medical Center in Westwood saved Spencer, but they couldn’t retrieve the bullet. It remains lodged near his spine underneath a jagged crust of skin.
Just over a year later, on Halloween, Spencer and his girlfriend bought tickets for a party in Hollywood. When they heard about a shooting that had injured three people near Hollywood Boulevard, they reconsidered, heading instead to USC. There, they found a couple of hundred revelers, some students and some not, waiting to enter a ballroom at the center of campus.
Students remember it being a lively crowd, even unruly.
“Everyone’s drunk, everyone’s in their costumes, everyone’s super hyped,” said graduate student Astrid Solorzano, who had been drinking with friends at the campus bar.
Then gunshots blasted out. As people shrieked, fleeing the cacophony, Solorzano heard a panicked cry: “He got shot! He got shot!”
Her eyes caught on the one figure that didn’t seem to be moving, a baby-faced teenager in jeans and a sweater.
“You could see the fear in his eyes,” Solorzano recalled. “I could see his body tensing…You could see the blood on his shirt, and the puddle of blood on the floor.”
The figure turned out to be Davonte Smith. The Inglewood resident testified at the trial that he heard gunshots and ran, never spotting the shooter. The next thing he knew, he was bleeding and his ankle throbbed with pain. He crumpled to the ground and tried to crawl away.
Three others, none of them USC students, were shot and wounded that night, too: Thomas Ritchie, My’Sson Downs and Geno Hall, a former Crenshaw High football standout.
Amid the chaos, police apprehended a young man sprinting away — Brandon Spencer. Two days later, Spencer celebrated his 19th birthday in jail.
The young man in the blue jumpsuit
Prosecutors charged Spencer with four counts of attempted first-degree murder.
Deputy District Attorney Antonella Nistorescu told jurors that Spencer and Hall had a longtime dispute as members of rival gangs — Spencer from the Bloods and Hall from the Crips — and often clashed on Twitter.
Their conflict exploded on Halloween night at USC when Spencer shot Hall — the same man who shot Spencer at the Proud Bird a year before, she argued.
Defense attorney John Blanchard disputed that Spencer was in a gang, pointing out that clean record, and claiming that two of the witness accounts didn’t match up.
Even so, the jury sided with the prosecution, and the judge found Spencer guilty of attempted murder and gang activity.
Just before Spencer’s sentencing, Downs, one of the victims, wrote a letter to the judge asking for mercy.
“I feel that Mr. Spencer is not the type of person who would commit an act of this nature,” wrote Downs, who has known Spencer since they were kids. “I hold no ill will towards him or anyone else and truly believe he deserves a second chance to become a responsible citizen.”
Public opinion was mixed. Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks said Spencer’s sentence should be a “lesson” to other young adults embroiled in conflict.
“He wounded four people — including his target — but seems to think he ought to get leniency because nobody died,” she wrote in a column.
One Times reader wrote in with an opposing view: “Forty years in prison for wounding a few people is a clear injustice...his dreams will die in prison.”
Up next: USC reacts ... and a family fights back
The case had reverberations in the USC community as well. The university took to heart the prosecution’s statement that students could have been killed and began restricting campus access at night. While some praised the new campus security measures, others admonished USC for pushing out residents in surrounding neighborhoods and failing to support the historically low-income, minority community members living outside its gates.
The new security seemed essential to many still reeling from an earlier shock of danger too close to campus. In April 2012, two Chinese graduate students were shot and killed in a robbery-gone-wrong as they sat in a BMW near campus. One suspect pleaded guilty to two counts of murder earlier this year and was sentenced to life in prison. His co-defendant is still awaiting trial.
Even amped-up security couldn’t prevent another tragedy: In late July, just a few months after Spencer landed in prison, four teenagers allegedly beat a Chinese graduate student to death near USC in another botched robbery. Many news reports about their murder charges have alluded to Spencer, the young man who had appeared on televisions just months before in a blue jumpsuit.
Just another kid from Inglewood
For Evangeline Ross, watching the trial on television felt surreal. She had known Brandon when he was a toddler living in the one-story bungalow across the street with his parents, older sister and two younger brothers. Their Inglewood neighborhood was peaceful, its quiet disturbed only by the whine of airplanes zooming in and out of LAX.
Ross remembered Brandon as an outspoken kid who loved the miniature ham sandwiches her husband would serve at the annual Christmas block party. Hours before the Rosses would plug in their holiday lights, a 5-year-old Brandon would knock at her door, asking, “You guys gonna do the ham sandwiches?” Then he would say, “I want a ham sandwich for this hand, and a ham sandwich for this hand,” holding up two fists. Brandon would return several times for extra helpings, and finally end with: “Do you want us to take the leftovers?”
“Other kids would stand back and hesitate,” said Ross. “He was never shy to ask questions.”
As Brandon grew up, he developed a talent and passion for soccer, said his father. He also possessed a goofball personality that easily endeared him to friends.
The teenage years brought new challenges for Brandon, especially when he was 13, and his parents’ separated. He switched high schools a few times, including a stint in Mississippi, where his father’s family lives. He ended up graduating from Inglewood’s Hillcrest Continuation High School in 2010.
One person Spencer confided in was his girlfriend, Jennifer Moore, telling her about the UCLA Emergency Medical Technician certificate course he was set to begin the week after the fateful Halloween party. All the while, he kept dreams alive for a career in acting, she said. When Spencer was in his teens, he had acted in an anti-Obama video and a commercial about earthquake safety.
Spencer also counted on several of his father’s friends for advice.
Herbert Baker loaned Spencer his black tie for the security guard job and brought him around his chiropractor’s office to discuss his career. Baker also said he piqued Spencer’s interest in Freemasonry, which emphasizes brotherhood and self-improvement.
Charles Patrick hired Spencer to help clean foreclosed properties. The two would talk about college plans and spirituality while driving to jobs around Los Angeles. Spencer always listened carefully and “talked with intelligence,” Patrick said.
Up next: Brandon Spencer's life takes a turn
Ted Hayes brought Spencer into the Compton Cricket Club, recalling one time that Spencer climbed on a fence for a team photo while the other players stood stiffly below.
James Spencer’s friends also saw that gang culture inevitably permeates Inglewood life. Even good kids, said Baker, mix with gang members by attending the same schools and walking the same sidewalks. Brandon, he said, was “thrown into the pit” by being from the same neighborhood as gun-toting drug dealers.
As one of Brandon’s friends — just a few years older and also from Inglewood — said in an interview, young people like him and Brandon can’t walk down the street without being asked: “Where are you from?”
Hayes said Brandon was “above average” for avoiding trouble for 19 years. “Apparently, the support system was working. But at some point, you can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said.
Forty years for four shots
Prosecutor Nistorescu argued during the trial that Spencer had revenge on his mind the night of the Halloween party. Just after his arrest, Spencer told an officer that he had been shot. Then he offered clarification: He had not been shot that evening, but a year before, referring to the Proud Bird party. To Nistorescu, this declaration suggested that Spencer was the Halloween shooter – and that he believed his crime was justified.
Standing in the middle of the courtroom, Nistorescu told the jury that it was equally unjust to shoot someone as get shot. She also showed photos from Spencer’s cellphone where he posed with a gun.
Spencer maintained his innocence throughout the trial, but the jury didn’t agree.
When Judge Edmund W. Clarke Jr. handed down the sentence of 40 years-to-life, Spencer’s face contorted into a grimace. Seated with his hands shackled behind his back, he thwacked his forehead twice on the table. Then Spencer blurted out a last-ditch plea, forcing out the words between sobs: “I’m sorry for what happened, Your Honor, but I can’t do life in prison.”
Spencer’s attorney John Blanchard acknowledged that the judge handed Spencer the lowest possible sentence, giving him the minimum years for each crime: 15 years to life on four attempted murder convictions, running concurrently, plus 25 years to life for gun use.
Still, he called it “far too high considering that nobody died,” and said the jury had an “emotional reaction” to the evidence.
According to Blanchard, Spencer could have gotten fewer years if he had been charged with a lesser crime in the first place, such as assault with a deadly weapon, or attempted murder without enhancements.
Laurie Levenson, a criminal law expert at Loyola Law School, said prosecutors have a “huge amount of discretion” when deciding which charges to bring.
Spencer was also convicted of gang activity because his cellphone contained photos of him throwing Bloods signs and showing off a gang tattoo, connecting him to the Black P. Stones. (A gang enhancement has limited requirements; it can be applied even if the defendant is not an actual gang “member” – as long as there is some evidence proving the intent to promote criminal gang activity.)
However, Clarke did not add years for that charge. It’s possible, according to Levenson, that the judge did not consider the shooting linked closely enough to gang activity to merit the extra time.
The ultimate conviction and its accompanying sentence was harsh but fair, in her opinion.
“The look on his face said it all,” said Levenson, recalling how Spencer had smacked his forehead on the table. “But my guess is that if someone had taken a photograph in the room where he had shot, the look on their faces would have supported the prosecution’s story.”
If he behaves well in prison, Spencer could be eligible for parole in 15 years, according to Blanchard. Then, he must convince the Board of Parole Hearings that he is not a “current, unreasonable risk of danger to the public.”
Last year, California granted parole to just 14 percent of eligible inmates. Still, parole for Spencer is much likelier in this era than it would have been under Governor Gray Davis, who approved an average of roughly 3 percent of paroles during his term, or Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who approved an average of about 5 percent.
Spencer has not been the only promising young man to get tangled in violent crime that could keep him behind bars for life.
“The really sad part is the human wreckage — the number of young people that throw their lives away with one colossally bad decision,” Levenson said.
A new state of mind
At the time of the shooting, Brandon Spencer lived with his girlfriend in Ladera Heights. His father found out about the Halloween party only later — when officers called around midnight saying his son was in custody.
Now, he is drumming up support among family, friends and community members, telling them that a racist system handed his son an unfair conviction and sentencing merely to placate USC.
“I wouldn't trust the police officers and detectives, prosecutors and judges to save my life because they are the biggest notorious gang members,” the elder Spencer said as he sorted trial documents in piles on his desk at his Inglewood apartment. “We allow these people to send our children to prison under the pressure from USC.”
On a recent evening, James Spencer dominated the apartment with his ringing voice, punching the air for emphasis as he exclaimed, as if to a judge, that his son is “not a notorious gang member.”
Spencer has made the most of the small apartment space, turning the front room into a home office plus a makeshift kitchen with the living room couch a couple of steps away.
As Spencer spoke, his children Bryson Spencer, 17, and Brittany Spencer, 24, drifted in and out of the living room, occasionally greeting friends and neighbors who had dropped by the apartment. The two siblings and their brother Bradley Spencer, 19, live with their father in the tidy second floor unit overlooking Manchester Boulevard.
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Brandon’s girlfriend, who accompanied him to the Halloween party, recently decided to break off their relationship. When she faced Brandon at the Twin Towers Jail shortly after the conviction, Moore saw a new side of her boyfriend, realizing, “He wasn’t in a good state of mind.”
Spencer and his son, who spends his days at a medium-security prison in the Central Valley, speak on the phone now and then to discuss plans for an appeal. They trade words of encouragement mixed with silly jokes, both forever changed by a lengthy, two year trial — and before that, four quick shots on one senseless night.
“You’ve always wanted to be a Navy Seal? Now it’s time to be a Navy Seal,” James tells Brandon. “You’ve been captured by the enemy. You’ve got to adapt to the environment you’re in, until you’re rescued.”
This article was produced by Intersections South LA, a student-run news website at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Intersections features in-depth reporting about South L.A. covering an area from University Park to Watts. Contact the site at firstname.lastname@example.org.