ST. LOUIS • Reginald Clemons admitted Wednesday that he was on the bridge where two sisters were raped and murdered one night in 1991 but insisted that he did not participate in the crime.
Then he invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination more than 30 times as Sue Boresi, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, bore down in questioning about details in the confession he said St. Louis police beat out of him.
Michael Manners, conducting a hearing here as a “special master” for the Missouri Supreme Court, told Clemons that his refusal to answer can have consequences.
“You understand that the inferences I will draw from your testimony will be unfavorable to you,” Manners warned him. Clemons acknowledged that he understood.
Judges and juries are not allowed to attach significance to such refusals in criminal trials, but this is a civil procedure known by the Latin term habeas corpus. The opposing lawyers disagree over whether Manners should consider it.
Manners will make a recommendation to the high court later that could lead to overturning the conviction, keeping Clemons on death row or something in between.
Clemons, now 41, testified that police beat him into admitting the crime, and said they told him they “have ways of making people talk.”
Boresi responded with a booking photo in which no injuries were evident, and a tape-recording of a statement made with no sounds suggesting threats or violence.
While one of Clemons’ lawyers, Andrew Lacy, focused on how the confession was obtained, Boresi went straight to what it contained: a detailed account of the rape and murder of sisters Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, on the old Chain of Rocks Bridge.
A male cousin of the victims, Thomas Cummins, described to police at the time how the women were showing him a poem written on the unused span when they encountered men who raped the women and forced all three into the Mississippi River. Only Cummins survived.
Lawyers for Clemons portrayed him as a victim too, coerced by police and portrayed unfairly by a zealous prosecutor to a jury that did not receive complete evidence while hearing a trial flawed with errors.
They point to a $150,000 settlement that Cummins received from police on his own claims of having a false confession beaten out of him.
Boresi has countered that the trial judge rejected the brutality claims almost two decades ago, and that the issues being raised now already have been litigated.
Among the three other men convicted in the crime, one has been executed, one is serving a life term without parole and one has been paroled under terms of a plea deal for his testimony.
Clemons told the hearing that two detectives slapped him twice on the back of the head, then beat his head against a wall while describing what they believed he had done. Clemons said that when he refused to confess, they beat him more, in the chest and stomach, where they wouldn’t leave noticeable marks.
“The only time they stopped hitting me was when I agreed to make a taped statement” admitting the crimes, he said. A tape recorder was turned on and he was then read his Miranda rights, he testified.
He said that when he appeared for arraignment, the judge noticed he had injuries and ordered that he be taken to a hospital.
In Clemons’ confession, he is heard describing how he and the other men went to the bridge, then decided to rape the women and rob their cousin. Someone else forced the sisters off the bridge, Clemons says, and Cummins was forced to jump or be shot.
Clemons was subsequently interviewed by internal affairs investigators and asked to pick the detectives he accused from 50-picture array. He could not.
Clemons attorneys read into the record trial testimony from a doctor who observed bruising on Clemons’ cheek. But Boresi produced a jail booking photo that did not show any injuries.
She pointed out that Clemons previously said he had been hit 10 times, but in a recent deposition changed it to 10 to 100 times.
“When I was being beaten, I wasn’t counting,” Clemons answered.
Former detectives Joseph Brauer and Chris Pappas, who conducted the interrogation, appeared at the hearing to deny mistreating him.
In the audiotaped confession, the are heard speaking politely to Clemons, asking him to take his time, and offering a tissue when he breaks down crying upon being asked to identify the sisters in photographs.
Virginia Kerry, mother of the two victims, and Kevin Cummins, their uncle, were watching and told a reporter later that the tearful moment was telling.
“That shows that at least for that moment, he had some remorse,” Virginia Kerry said.
Boresi noted that all three of Clemons’ co-defendants implicated him, even though two were good friends. Clemons refused to answer a question about that, again asserting the Fifth Amendment.
It was the same with almost every question that Boresi asked about the crime itself.
Clemons also did the same in an earlier deposition.
Responding to the state’s written motion to compel Clemons’ answers, his attorneys explained they were trying to reserve his rights against self-incrimination in case there ends up being a re-trial.
They also explained they are concerned that he might still be tried on rape and robbery charges dismissed 20 years ago, suggesting the statute of limitations is vague.
Attorneys for the state argued that Fifth Amendment protections do not apply to a habeas corpus proceeding; Clemons’ attorneys argued that they do.
Either way, his refusals to answer left a clear impression on some in the courtroom.
Kevin Cummins remarked, “Innocent people don’t take the Fifth.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect first name for former St. Louis Det. Chris Pappas. This version has been corrected.