ST. LOUIS • A man fighting his conviction and death sentence in a 1991 double-murder on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge failed to establish his innocence in the case, according to a special review by a judge.
The judge noted, however, that prosecutors improperly suppressed evidence that suggested detectives beat Reginald Clemons into confessing to the crimes.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners, who retired from the bench last month, was appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court as “special master” to review the case of Clemons, 41, who sits on death row.
“I do not believe Clemons has established a gateway claim of actual innocence,” Manners wrote.
His report now goes to the state’s high court, which will begin the process of reviewing Clemons’ appeal. The court can decide anything from leaving Clemons on death row to throwing out his conviction.
Clemons was among four men convicted of raping and murdering sisters Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, on the old Chain of Rocks Bridge in April 1991. A jury convicted Clemons without physical evidence of rape. He was sentenced to death in 1993.
Manners argued in his report that the jury in Clemons’ case would never have heard his taped confession if the state had not suppressed a probation officer’s testimony. The officer said he saw injuries to Clemons’ face after a police interrogation.
Manners wrote that although he doesn’t believe the evidence would have changed the verdict, he rejected the state’s claim that keeping it out of the trial was a “harmless error.”
Manners wrote that he listened to Clemons’ taped confession, in which Clemons is “sobbing uncontrollably” upon seeing pictures of the Kerry sisters. Manners said he believes police coerced Clemons into a confession that he later recanted. Clemons “sounded authentic,” Manners wrote, “maybe because of his fear of what was going to happen to him, or maybe for some other reason. Maybe.”
Manners held hearings on the case in September in a rare, special review. Clemons has acknowledged being on the bridge the night of the killings but claims police beat a confession out of him and that he was railroaded by an overzealous prosecutor.
During cross-examination in September, Clemons invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself more than 30 times.
In his report, Manners argued that Clemons failed to present new evidence and unnecessarily invoked his Fifth Amendment right.
“While he had a right to decline to testify at his criminal trial, we are way past that now,” Manners wrote.
The judge also concluded that Clemons’ death sentence “was not disproportionate,” considering that Clemons’ co-defendant, Marlin Gray, was executed for the crime in 2005, Manners concluded. In Gray’s case, the state’s high court ruled the death penalty was appropriate punishment.
Josh Levine, one of Clemons’ attorneys, declined to comment on Manners’ findings.
Amnesty International USA, which opposes the death penalty, issued a statement Tuesday saying it hopes the Supreme Court throws out Clemons’ death sentence. “It is a complex case and serious allegations of misconduct by prosecutors and police appear to have been affirmed,” the statement said.
In a statement from a group called the Justice for Reggie Campaign, supporters pointed out that the judge's findings "are not rulings but non-binding guidance" to the state Supreme Court. They called the findings "yet another phase in the journey for justice" in Clemons' case.
Reggie’s mother, Vera Thomas, said in the statement: “This was such a derailment of due process from the very beginning so I thank the community for all their efforts that has brought us this far. I am grateful to the Missouri Supreme Court for giving us this opportunity to open up this case and for the special efforts of Judge Michael Manners in reviewing the case. I’m also appreciative of Reggie’s phenomenal legal team who has been on this case many years.
“The wheels of justice are still turning, ”said Thomas, “but there are no winners in a death penalty case.”
The case has caught the attention of activists worldwide and has been a focal point of Amnesty International USA’s Death Penalty Abolition Campaign.
The Kerry sisters led a visiting cousin, Thomas Cummins, then 19, to the unused bridge span on the night of April 5, 1991, to show him a poem they had scrawled there, but they ended up encountering a group of men. The women were raped, and they and Cummins were forced into the Mississippi River. Only Cummins survived.
Police identified the suspects as Clemons, Gray, Antonio Richardson and Daniel Winfrey. Winfrey testified in exchange for a 30-year term and has been paroled. The others were sentenced to death. Gray was executed; Richardson’s penalty was later changed to life without parole.
Clemons was weeks from being executed in June 2009 when the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals blocked it. The Missouri Supreme Court then agreed to consider the case.
Clemons is imprisoned at the Potosi Correctional Center.
Leah Thorsen and Valerie Schremp Hahn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.