by Jesse Muhammad, Staff Writer
Reginald Clemons has been on death row in the state of Missouri for 17 years for a crime he and his supporters say he didn't commit.
On March 5, 2012, the 40-year-old Black inmate may finally get his day in court.
At the scheduled hearing, Judge Michael Manners, the special master appointed to review the case by the Missouri Supreme Court, is expected to either decide to give Mr. Clemons a new trial, set a new execution date or recommend his immediate release.
Despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime, Mr. Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death in connection with the 1991 deaths of two White siblings, Robin and Julie Kerry, who drowned after falling from the Chain of the Rocks Bridge into the Mississippi River.
In a letter from the Missouri Attorney General's office sent last March, Judge Manners was asked to consider some evidence that had been held in cold storage at the police department's crime lab.
According to a letter from the AG's office to the judge “the state has discovered three laboratory reports and certain physical evidence, including what is commonly referred to as a rape kit. The evidence had not been previously disclosed as part of the state's case against Mr. Clemons,” the letter said.
The hearing has been rescheduled three times but St. Louis activist Jamala Rogers says Mr. Clemons is remaining determined and optimistic.
“When I last spoke with Reggie he said the attorneys want to make sure they have everything lined to present the best case possible. Also, to make sure there is enough time to get the DNA results from the rape kit evidence,” Ms. Roger told The Final Call.
Missouri is one of 34 states actively using the death penalty. By state, Missouri ranks fifth among executions carried out since 1976 with a total of 68 according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The state presently has 50 people on death row.
Ms. Rogers serves as the lead coordinator of the “Justice for Reggie” campaign. She and others have worked alongside Vera Thomas, Mr. Clemons' mother, and the legal defense team the past several years in fighting for his complete freedom.
Since the Sept. 21 execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, Mr. Clemons’ plight has drawn even more attention globally.
“There certainly has been more awareness surrounding Reggie’s case since the murder of Troy Davis. According to Reggie, a sad feeling swept throughout the prison he is in because they were following Troy Davis’ case,” said Ms. Rogers.
“There is a ‘Troy Davis’ in every state that has the death penalty. Reggie is our ‘Troy Davis’ and if we all look in our own backyards we will find similar cases in our own states,” said Ms. Rogers.
A case of reasonable doubt
According to Mr. Clemons' lawyers and supporters, the two White victims in the case went missing after visiting the Chain of Rocks Bridge on April 4, 1991 with their White male cousin Tom Cummins. The bridge had become a popular hangout spot for teenagers.
Mr. Cummins reportedly told police that the girls had been raped and pushed from the bridge, while he was robbed and ordered to jump by an unknown assailant, and that he survived the nearly 80-foot fall into the water with no injuries and dry hair. He even confessed to being responsible for the crime but was never arrested.
Instead, a then 19-year-old Mr. Clemons was apprehended by the police along with three others who were also hanging out on the bridge that night. The three Black males received a death sentence. The fourth young male, who is White, received a 30-year sentence and is presently on parole.
Mr. Clemons testified to Internal Affairs that he was forced into confessing to raping the victims because of brutal beatings by two detectives during interrogation. Mr. Clemons said his head was slammed repeatedly against the walls of the interrogation room which paralleled the documented stories of co-defendant Marlin Gray. Officers denied the claims.
In February 1993, Mr. Clemons was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
In 2005, Mr. Gray was convicted and put to death by lethal injection. Co-defendant Antonio Richardson is now serving a life sentence and the lone White co-defendant in the case, Daniel Winfrey, was released on parole in 2007.
Both Mr. Clemons and Mr. Gray were given death sentences by the state under the law of “accomplice liability.” There has been no physical evidence, fingerprints, DNA or hair samples linking Mr. Clemons to the crime.
Mr. Cummins would later retract his confession and the city courts awarded him $150,000 after he charged that St. Louis officers beat the confession out of him.
Mr. Clemons has maintained his innocence and has stated that he gave coerced confessions after suffering multiple beatings at the hands of St. Louis Metropolitan police detectives. On June 17, 2009, Mr. Clemons was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted a stay. Amnesty International, the human rights group that galvanized over one million signed petitions in an effort to save Troy Davis, is making Mr. Clemons' case a focal point in its 50th anniversary regional conference in Kansas City.
“We’re working with Amnesty, NAACP, ACLU and others. We have to keep the momentum going and stay energized. Troy Davis’ last words were that we can’t stop and we don’t intend to. We will be using all avenues possible to keep fighting for Reggie and all others,” said Ms. Rogers.
“It’s not just about these individual cases. It’s about fighting this entire system and ending the death penalty. We don’t have to run across the country looking for someone to fight for. Start where you are,” she advised.
(The story originally appeared in The Final Call Newspaper in Vol 31 No. 5 dated November 8, 2011)