Sitting in court Sept. 21, Neil Anthony Spencer’s voice broke as he told a judge how much he had tried to live a better life after serving 18 years in prison for the murder of a Roanoke man who had been his friend and employer.
“I tried so hard,” Spencer, 64, said, weeping as he testified.
But yet, Roanoke prosecutors said, just two years after being released Spencer was again charged in the death of another man — accused of involuntary manslaughter and driving under the influence in a fiery crash in Bedford County.
That wreck, a single-vehicle crash into a tree reported near Moneta in 2020, left Spencer severely injured and killed his friend, 60-year-old James Sparks.
Spencer’s wounds left him with a fragmented memory of the crash and he couldn’t recall whether it had been him or Sparks behind the wheel that day, said defense attorney Allegra Black. Bedford authorities said Spencer was the driver, and a blood test found elevated levels of methamphetamine in his system.
Spencer entered an Alford plea to the charges in the wreck — not admitting guilt but conceding there was enough evidence to convict him — as part of an agreement under which he was sentenced to 12 months in jail.
His conviction triggered a report to Roanoke where he was still on probation for the 2001 slaying of Mark David Stroud.
Spencer, in that case, pleaded no contest to having shot Stroud five times during an argument at Stroud’s home, according to news archives. He told authorities he had been mixing alcohol and OxyContin at the time.
Stroud had owned a tree service, where Spencer worked, and the two were friends, although authorities said they were known to get into altercations that could take a violent turn.
Spencer served 18 years for the shooting, gaining release in 2018, but still had 13 years in suspended time to face if he violated the conditions of his probation.
Roanoke prosecutors moved to reinstate the suspended sentence after the Bedford case. In court Sept. 21, assistant prosecutor John McNeil said Spencer had racked up a long record of serious crimes during his life.
In 1989, he was accused of stabbing one man and shooting another in the hand in confrontations that unfolded four months apart, according to newspaper archives. He served 3½ years in those cases and went to an alcohol treatment facility.
McNeil said it was stunning to see Spencer back in court again and convicted of harming another person.
“He’s forfeited his right to be a free man,” McNeil said.
The defense pleaded for leniency, citing in part the severity of his injuries, for which he’s undergone at least 10 surgeries with more needed. Spencer said attempting to stand causes him “shockwaves” of pain, and he was brought into court Sept. 21 in a wheelchair.
Spencer had tried to rebuild his life after his release, Black said, getting a job and making payments on his court costs. He and Sparks had worked together, and were on their way to a tree-cutting job when the crash occurred.
The loss of his friend was wrenching for Spencer, Black said. He is not a threat to the public, she said.
“I hope [the court] will show me mercy,” Spencer said during his own tearful statement.
Judge Chris Clemens indicated he appreciated Spencer’s expression of remorse but the Bedford case combined with Spencer’s prior history painted a disturbing picture.
“You are not safe for society right now,” Clemens said.
He ordered that 10 years of Spencer’s suspended sentence be reinstated. Spencer’s health could make him eligible for geriatric release before that term expires.
Clemens said he wouldn’t oppose that should the Department of Corrections request it.