Please note update, below.
Today, Reggie Clemons faces a horrifyingly similar circumstance, convicted and sentenced to death as an accomplice to the murder of two young women in 1991, despite a disturbing number of problems in the case against him, including: a lack of any physical evidence, compromised eyewitnesses, allegations of police brutality, prosecutorial behavior described by judges as “abusive and boorish,” a stacked jury, and inadequate legal representation — and then there’s the question of race.
Victims Robin and Julie Kerry drowned in the Mississippi River after falling from the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis. Their cousin Thomas Cummins originally confessed to the acts which led to one young woman falling and the other jumping to try to save her, but charges against Cummins were dropped after he identified other suspects, among them Clemons. The Kerry sisters, Cummins, and one other codefendant were all white; the other suspects, all African American. After a lengthy legal process (including testimony from the white co-defendant, Daniel Winfrey, who reportedly told a friend he would lie to get a plea bargain – because he knew his word would be taken over that of a group of black men), Winfrey was given a deal and released on parole in 2007, co-defendant Marlin Gray was executed in 2005, co-defendant Antonio Richardson is serving a life sentence, and Clemons was scheduled for execution on June 17, 2009. I’m unclear as to when Missouri’s Supreme Court granted a stay and appointed a “special master” to hear evidence in Clemons’s case, but that hearing began on Monday.
The Guardian ran a great package summarizing the case last month, including video in which Clemons tells the reporter:
I remember the police mainly beating me in the chest…. While they were beating me they were telling me what they wanted me admit to…. If you believe that someone is willing to beat you to death, while they’re beating you they can just about get you to admit anything.
A reporter who’s been covering the case in the US tells The Guardian:
The day that Reginald Clemons is sentenced to death, Thomas Cummins…gets paid $150,000 to settle a police brutality case. The police brutality that Thomas Cummins alleged was indistinguishable in detail from what Reginald Clemons alleged. And Reginald Clemons is sentenced to death. Partly on the basis of the confession that was beaten out of him which shouldn’t have been allowed in court.
The Guardian reported in August that the new hearing was expected to last a week — which means that Reggie Clemons’s fate may well be decided in the next few days.
In an editorial that appeared today, The St. Louis American saw reason for hope in questions posed by the special master, Judge Michael Manners:
At another point, Judge Manners interrupted Jeanene Moenckmeier, one of Clemons’ original trial attorneys. She had been called to the stand to testify about a troubling piece of evidence that prosecutor Nels Moss was requested to provide in Clemons’ jury trail but never did turn over to the defense. It is a copy of a draft police report on Cummins, the first suspect in the 1991 murders of Julie and Robin Kerry who became the prosecution’s star witness. Moss admitted in court to hand-correcting the draft police report, dated May 6, 1991. Most of Moss’ changes, which made Cummins look less guilty and more credible, were made in the final police report, dated May 31, 1991, that was entered into evidence in Clemons’ jury trial.
“Did you have a copy of the May 6 report?” Judge Manners interrupted to ask Moenckmeier. She said, “No.” Judge Manners followed up, “Was the May 6 report introduced in court?” She said, “No.”
This suggests that Judge Manners takes very seriously the fact that a prosecutor would tamper with a police report in a capital trial and then withhold evidence of his tampering when asked to provide it to the defense.
In the words of the editorial writer:
Whatever one believes actually happened on the Chain of Rocks Bridge on the tragic night of April 4, 1991, a trial where a prosecutor is allowed to change a police report to benefit his case, and then not provide that evidence to the defense, is not a trial whose verdict should be respected.
The day before he was killed, Troy Davis released the following statement:
The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath.
We are the only ones who can carry on the work to which Troy Davis and his family dedicated themselves. In his memory, and in the name of justice for all, please go to Amnesty International, and take action for Reggie Clemons.
UPDATE: The Special Master hearing is likely to go on for some time, possibly into next year, and Amnesty says this is probably a good thing.