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UPDATED at 2 p.m. with photos from courtroom and details from the morning's testimony.

ST. LOUIS • Attorneys for Reginald Clemons argued this morning that an altered police report, a coerced confession and withheld lab evidence cast doubt on the 1993 conviction that sent him to death row.

Lawyers from the Missouri attorney general's office disputed those characterizations and said many of the debated points have already been litigated.

Clemons, now 41, was one of four men convicted in the murders of Julie and Robin Kerry, sisters who were raped and forced to leap into the Mississippi River from the old Chain of Rocks Bridge on April 5, 1991. The women's cousin, Thomas Cummins, said that he was made to watch and then forced off the bridge himself. He alone managed to swim to shore.

Under interrogation in 1991, Cummins confessed the crime before recanting. His statements took center stage today, at the start of an evidentiary hearing to help determine whether Clemons' death sentence or even conviction might be overturned.

Clemons' lawyers produced a draft police report of Cummins' statements to detectives, which differed from a final report that was entered into the record at Clemons' trial.

In the early version, Cummins is reported to have said he made sexual advances toward Julie Kerry, who refused him, and that he accidently pushed her off the bridge while they were arguing. In the final report, the detectives suggest Cummins harbored sexual feelings toward his cousin, admitted it, and said Julie Kerry fell on her own.

Also in the first version, Cummins says Robin Kerry must have jumped or he pushed her. In the final report, he says she must have jumped in after her sister.

The draft report contains handwritten notes in the margin from the then-prosecutor, Nels Moss, in which he seemingly adds a statement from Cummins, in which he admits, "I did it."

Clemons' attorney, Josh Levine, said the changes to Cummins' early confession demonstrate "a prosecutor who was intent on getting a conviction at any cost." More disturbing, he said, was that the draft report was not shared with the defense until 2010, 17 years after Clemons' trial and a year after Clemons was scheduled to be executed but granted a stay.

In 1995, Cummins received a $150,000 settlement from St. Louis police on his claims that a false confession had been beaten out of him. Clemons' attorneys say the circumstance bolsters Clemons' claims that his confession was also the result of police brutality.

Sue Boresi, of the attorney general's office, pointed out that Clemons' attorneys at trial had been allowed to see the draft report, and noted the judge was also made aware of it. She suggested that Moss' notations were an attempt to get the facts straight after refusing to issue warrants against Cummins.

In addition, Boresi said the trial judge had heard Clemons' claim of being coerced and refused to allow it in evidence.

Another topic in dispute today was a lab report that says no seminal fluid was found during an autopsy of Julie Kerry's body. The report was never presented at trial, which Clemons' lawyers now argue was a violation of the Supreme Court's Brady case ruling that the defense is entitled to evidence favorable to its side.

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Boresi countered that the report did not fall under Brady because Clemons had only admitted raping Robin Kerry, whose body was never found. Boresi noted that the medical examiner, Michael Graham, testified at trial that Julie Kerry's body was moderately decomposed when it was recovered after three weeks in the Mississippi River, making if difficult to find evidence of rape.

DNA testing, not available at trial, has since been performed on a used condom found on the bridge, the attorneys said. It showed DNA matching the victims, and which could not exclude Clemons or one of his co-defendants.

The Missouri Supreme Court ordered the hearing, which began today, for a third review of evidence. Judge Michael Manners of Jackson County, appointed as "special master" on the case, will hear the evidence this week and make a recommendation later to the state's high court.

One of the suspects in the case has since been executed, another is serving an life term and a third received early parole in exchange for testimony against the other three defendants.

Clemons came within days of lethal injection three years ago, before a federal appeals court halted the execution.

 

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Jennifer S. Mann is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.