Hearing may decide fate of man on Missouri's death row in Chain of Rocks case

2012-09-14T00:15:00Z 2015-01-23T19:04:48Z Hearing may decide fate of man on Missouri's death row in Chain of Rocks caseBY JENNIFER MANN • jmann@post-dispatch.com > 314-621-5804 stltoday.com

ST. LOUIS • One is dead, one is on parole and one is serving a life term, but the fourth man convicted of throwing two sisters to their deaths off the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge two decades ago still has the court's attention in his bid for freedom.

Lawyers for Reginald Clemons, 41, will make their case here next week to a judge appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to hear evidence and make recommendations on the claim he was wrongfully convicted.

The high court could do anything from leaving him on death row to throwing out his conviction.

The case has been watched by activists around the world, and is the primary focus of Amnesty International USA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign, its director, Laura Moye said Thursday. She plans to be at the hearing. The organization plans a rally for Clemons on Saturday.

"We were very struck by a long list of problems with the case, which to us was emblematic of the worst things that can happen in a death penalty," Moye said. She recited complaints about police misconduct, a lack of physical evidence and reliance on shaky witness testimony.

Not all of it will necessarily be a rehash of old issues.

A DNA test on evidence that might have been overlooked at the time of the trial may surface during what is expected to be a weeklong hearing at the Carnahan Courthouse downtown. What it shows has never been publicly revealed; lawyers in the case are under a gag order.

The case was especially riveting. Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, led a visiting cousin, Thomas Cummins, 19, to the unused span the night of April 5, 1991, to show him a poem they had scrawled there about peace and harmony. They encountered men who raped the women and forced all three into the Mississippi River. Only Cummins survived, and police initially discounted his story.

Detectives soon zeroed in on Clemons, Marlin Gray, Antonio Richardson and Daniel Winfrey. Evidence included a flashlight found on the bridge that was linked to Richardson, and Gray's possession of Cummins' watch.

Winfrey made a deal to testify in exchange for a 30-year term and has been paroled. The others were sentenced to death. Gray was executed; Richardson's penalty was changed to life without parole.

Clemons was just weeks away from execution in June 2009 when the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals blocked it. He then won a new review by the Missouri Supreme Court. It sees a number of appeals from death row inmates each year; most end up there twice. Clemons is receiving a rare third look through a "special master" process.

Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners was appointed 'special master" to hear the evidence.

Clemons' lawyer argues in court filings that new evidence warrants a review of claims that his client's confession, which he later recanted, was beaten out of him. They point to the $150,000 settlement Cummins received from police in 2005 on his own claim that he was coerced into falsely confessing before quickly retelling the version of events that ultimately held weight with police and the courts.

The lawyer, Josh Levine, also argues that Clemons was not given the same treatment as Richardson, whom he argues was more culpable in the state's version of events. Cummins testified that he saw Richardson push the girls from the bridge.

Levine declined to comment for this story, as did Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster's office, which is representing the state.

Levine is expected to challenge "rape kit" test results from the body of Julie Kerry and three other police lab reports that came to the attention of the attorney general's office two years ago.

Nobody has been able to say whether the evidence was presented to defense lawyers at the time of Clemons' 1993 trial, which would be required if it favored his acquittal. Prosecution and defense lawyers have since said they don't recall having seen it then.

Officials have said there was a public record of its existence starting the year after the trial but the defense is disputing that.

A 1991 lab report, which predated DNA testing, indicated the rape kit showed no seminal fluid or sperm. In addition, Gray's pants were tested, based on semen stains and a hair found on them.

All the evidence has since been tested for DNA, but Manners issued a gag order last year after the Post-Dispatch requested the results.

The method of detecting semen in a tissue sample has not changed in two decades, although DNA testing might offer other identification possibilities.

Even so, it's unclear whether new DNA evidence would matter. Clemons initially confessed to raping only Robin Kerry, whose body was never found. Julie Kerry's remains were found moderately decomposed, about 300 miles downstream, three weeks after the crime.

The jury convicted Clemons without physical evidence of rape, and the presence of someone else's DNA would not necessarily rule him out as one of the killers. If he had raped Julie Kerry, he still might not have left evidence.

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