A Bride of Conviction
Janet Spears will spend Thanksgiving Day alone, but she is not particularly upset about it. It is true that her two teenage daughters will spend the holiday with her ex-husband, and that her house, a modest but modern two-story duplex in Mesa, will seem empty without them. But Janet, a 38-year-old legal assistant, is glad to have the time to relax. Overall, the long weekend promises to be a good one.
On Friday and Saturday, she will see her husband. Of course, she will only get to see him for two hours each day. There will be no privacy during those visits, because her husband, Anthony M. Spears, is on death row, and intimacy is not one of the privileges of Arizona's condemned. Still, visitation on two consecutive days is a rarity. Janet and Tony will have plenty to talk about.
Besides the challenges of day-to-day life--both his and hers--there is Tony's legal predicament. The appeal of his murder conviction is before the Arizona Supreme Court. A decision may be imminent. Or it could be months until the justices decide. There's no telling.
If they wish, Janet and Tony can speculate on his case in great detail. Janet knows the charges, and the legal ins and outs surrounding them, as well as anyone. You see, before she married Tony Spears--before she had spoken a word to him--Janet sat on the jury that convicted him of murder. In fact, she was the foreman of that jury.
Upon reading the preceding paragraph, many people will come to immediate judgment. They will decide instantly that Janet Spears is someone extraordinary, perhaps even a freak. They will conclude that a woman who could vote to convict a man of murder, then marry him, has to be either stupid or unbalanced. Marrying a murderer is unusual. Marrying one you helped convict is, as far as I know, unique.
But those who would judge Janet Spears harshly from their Thanksgiving Day easy chairs are, perhaps, those who might want to pay close attention to her story. Janet Spears believes she has found the kind of love--the direct connection of one soul to another--that most of us profess to want, yet struggle to achieve or maintain.
And as we struggle, who are we to sneer at love that survives in the shadow of an executioner's needle?
Janet Spears grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the youngest of three children in an upper-middle-class family. Her father, who died in 1984, was a manager at a foundry. Her mother, now 72, was what used to be called a housewife.
Janet says her early years were nothing if not middle-American. She had good parents. She didn't run with the fast crowd. No alcohol, no drugs.
Her parents were not the type to encourage daughters to attend college. So, during her senior year of high school, Janet began working at a Howard Johnson's on the Ohio Turnpike. There, she met her first husband. She was 17, he was 22. "It was the thing to get married. In 1975, I wanted to get married," she says. As with most middle-American marriage stories, children followed--two girls, three years apart.
The family moved to Arizona in early 1989, in part because his parents lived here. The marriage was not doing all that well when Janet was chosen to sit on a jury in 1992, just before Thanksgiving.
Janet was working for a law firm in Mesa when she was selected as juror number six in Maricopa County Superior Court Case CR92-90457, State of Arizona v. Anthony M. Spears. Even so, she knew very little about the criminal justice system. She just felt privileged to do her civic duty.
"I was so excited to be on a jury," she recalls.
She recalls another feeling, too, but it was one she quickly suppressed.
"When I saw my [future] husband there at the defense table ... something hit me. I thought he was very handsome. But then I said, 'Wait a second. I can't do this.'"
Over the next two weeks or so, Janet and the other jurors listened as the prosecution tried to prove that Tony Spears had killed a girlfriend, Jeanette Beaulieu of Chandler, in January 1992.
The state alleged that Spears, then living in San Diego with another woman, persuaded Beaulieu he was going to run away with her. Then, the state claimed, he flew to Phoenix, using a ticket Beaulieu purchased for him, and shot her to death as part of a plot to steal a car and several thousand dollars from her.
Beaulieu's body was found in east Mesa. She had been shot in the back of the head. One news account described the murder as "execution-style."
As Janet watched and listened, police testified that they had found a 9-millimeter handgun at Tony Spears' apartment in California. They said they had found a shell casing in a bush near Beaulieu's body. The casing was said to match the handgun.
Belongings of Beaulieu--weapons and documents--were found in Tony Spears' apartment. He was driving her car when he was arrested (although the title indicated she had sold it to him). She had made several large withdrawals from automatic tellers; he was in possession of several thousand dollars.
Throughout the testimony, Janet says, she was waiting for conclusive evidence that Anthony Spears had, beyond a reasonable doubt, killed Jeanette Beaulieu and stolen her car. "I sat on the jury, and I had an open mind. I said, 'Okay, prosecution, you prove this to me.'"
She acknowledges being surprised that the defense presented no evidence whatsoever. "I was disappointed, because I wanted to hear their side, because I thought certainly the defense would have something to say about this flimsy evidence."
She says the prosecution never came close to proving Anthony Spears guilty of murder.
Back in December 1992, though, Janet agreed with 11 other jurors who voted to convict him. Now, she says, her vote was "an awful, awful, awful mistake."
But this is now, and that was then.
The jury deliberations Janet Spears describes seem more like trash television than a legal proceeding.
When she was chosen jury foreman, Janet says, she was convinced the prosecution had not proved its case. But by the third day of deliberation, she says, all 11 other jurors solidly favored finding Tony Spears guilty. She was the lone holdout.
Over the course of deliberations, jurors committed an amazing array of misconduct, if what Janet says is true.
She says jurors suggested Tony Spears was probably guilty because: he had not testified in his own defense; he had likely tried to plea-bargain to a lesser offense, but had been turned down by the prosecution; and his attorney had not objected to each and every item of evidence the prosecution presented.
Of course, by legal standards, all of these assertions are laughably irrelevant. Simply by making the assertions, jurors appear to have violated fundamental judicial orders on jury conduct.
But that's not all the fun and games that enlivened these deliberations.
By Janet's account, other jurors, pressing her to change her vote, said that if Tony Spears didn't like being convicted, he could always appeal. They said that even if the state hadn't proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury should still consider voting him guilty. After all, he must have done something.
One juror, Janet says, noted that Tony Spears' attorney was a Jew. Someone suggested that because Jewish attorneys are known to be smart, Tony's lawyer would surely have put on some evidence if his client were innocent. Another juror, Janet claims, admitted falling asleep during the trial.
After three days of this high legal debate, Janet says, one juror made a comment that struck to her core.
"What really made me jump the fence was ... one juror said, 'You're emotionally involved in this case,'" she says.
Exhausted, uncertain, Janet wondered whether the juror was correct. That thought made the difference. "I just gave up and said, 'Fine. Eleven people say I'm wrong. Maybe I'm wrong.'"
She switched her vote to guilty.
The day after Tony Spears was convicted, Janet wrote a letter to the trial judge, Cheryl Hendrix. The letter spelled out many of the complaints about the jury deliberation I have described. The letter ended this way: "If the individuals I sat with in the jury room are to be a defendant's peers, I feel the justice system is in grave danger."
She didn't hear anything back and didn't pursue the matter. "I did end up seeing a doctor, and I did go on antidepressants, because this trial was such an emotional drain on me."
In January, she wrote Tony, but got no response. "After a while, I felt relieved. I felt, okay, this is what happened. I'm sending it to you. You don't want to forgive me, fine. I don't care. ... I felt like I'd forgiven myself."
In March 1993, at the request of the public defender who represented Spears, Janet swore out an affidavit detailing many of her charges of jury misconduct. She added another, alleging that jurors had used an alternate juror's notes in reaching their verdict. The alternate was not present during deliberations and so could not have explained what the notes meant.
Judge Hendrix refused to give Spears a new trial, noting that Janet had been polled twice in open court, both times announcing that she agreed with the guilty verdict.
The judge ruled that "the subjective motives and mental processes utilized by the jury are not open to inquiry"--meaning that most of Janet's complaints could not properly be considered as reasons to grant a new trial. The judge also decided the alternate juror's notes were not the type of outside evidence a jury is prohibited from using.
Hendrix then sentenced Anthony M. Spears to death.
I have no idea whether Anthony Spears is a murderer. I certainly can't say he is innocent. I did not sit through his trial, and I have not questioned him. In short, I have not done the intensive research that would be necessary before I could begin to assert a jury verdict was wrong.
Neither am I saying that Judge Hendrix did anything wrong in declining to grant a new trial. I don't doubt for a moment that Hendrix--a knowledgeable, careful jurist--had a legal basis for her ruling.
I'm just telling a story about a woman in love. And you can't tell a love story without telling how the guy and the girl met.
Janet says she first spoke to Anthony in March 1993. Tony had written to thank Janet for signing her affidavit. So she went down to the county jail to see him. As it turned out, both had grown up in Cleveland. They had, she says, the same philosophy of life.
"We just clicked. We had so much in common."
She visited him a few more times at the jail. In April, Tony Spears was sent to death row in Florence. Janet, who was divorced by then, continued to see him. By summer, she says, they had decided to marry.
She insists she was not on the rebound from her divorce when she made the decision. It came only after much soul-searching. And remorse over her guilty vote played no part in the matter, she says.
As Janet sees it, her marriage is based on the type of bond that most anyone would like to forge with a mate.
"Our conversations are more in-depth than a lot of people's, because the only way we can share our experiences is through conversation," she says.
An attorney who knows Janet well says the relationship was troubling, at first. "You're going to find this funny, but my initial reaction was maternal. I didn't want her to get hurt ... I was really concerned," says the attorney, who asked not to be identified.
There was Janet's recent divorce. And what about guilt--not Tony's, but Janet's? She had, after all, cast a vote that sent him to death row.
"And we talked at length about that," the lawyer says. "She has done enough introspection that she has asked herself just about every question you or I could ask her."
Janet also has questioned Tony Spears time and time again about the murder.
"She's not this gullible, Miss Innocent-type person," the lawyer says.
On February 11, 1994, Janet and Tony were married on death row. A justice of the peace presided; the witnesses were prison guards. Obviously, there was no honeymoon. The couple was allowed a two-hour "contact" visit, but the room they used had windows and a video camera. There was no sex. There never has been.
So why didn't she just wait until Tony Spears' appeal was decided, one way or another?
"Why would you wait, if you really love somebody, and they love you?" Janet asks. "Why wait? Why wait until there's a chance they may get off?
"Then it seems like, 'Okay, I'll marry you, you know, once you're home and can provide for me. But if not, I love you all the same, but I don't want to marry you.'"
Janet Spears is intelligent. Her boss describes her as a first-rate legal assistant. She is a senior at ASU, working toward a political-science degree. She plans to attend law school.
Because she is intelligent, Janet has not gone traipsing about the Valley, publicizing that she voted to convict Tony Spears, then married him. She knows many people would recoil at the news. Some of her co-workers have been told, and so has her family.
Her mother simply doesn't want to talk about it. Janet is not very close with her brother. "His response was, 'Well, do what you want,'" Janet says. "As to my sister, she's really curious as to what it's like."
Her daughters know she's married, "and that's enough."
"I don't take them to prison. I don't think that's the place for them to be," Janet says.
And her ex-husband just stays away from the situation. "He's happy, and I'm happy," she says.
If Janet Spears' marriage is unusual, it is not strange in the way I had expected when I first learned of it.
During several interviews, I asked Janet the most hard-boiled of questions. Her answers seemed to transcend the meaning of the words she spoke.
I asked what she was getting out of the marriage.
"I've never stopped to think what I'm getting out of it. All I know is ... I don't regret it. I love him very much. There's more to a marriage than being able to be with each other all the time. There's intangible feelings."
How do you know he's not really guilty?
"He has said he didn't commit this crime. And I believe him, after reading all the [police] reports."
But what about sex?
"People say you don't have a normal marriage if you don't have sex. But there's more to marriage than sex," Janet says.
You've never been together for an extended time; if he does get out of jail, how can you know you'll get along?
"I'm sure we can adjust. Our marriage is so strong ... it's stronger than a lot of marriages."
But what happens if the conviction isn't reversed?
"I don't know what the court will do. But in my heart, I can't believe the death penalty will be upheld. Now, I feel if the death penalty is upheld, and it goes to the end, I'll still be there."
The longer I spoke with her, the more I began to believe that Janet Spears--a woman who married a murderer she had helped convict--possessed something worth having. She seemed as near peace with herself as anyone I'd ever met.
Now, I'm not asking you to believe that assertion as you settle down for your Thanksgiving weekend. You're certainly free to think of Janet Spears as someone so bizarre that she has nothing to say that you need to hear.
After all, you're not looking for love in the face of fear and death. Are you?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.