Reggie Clemons and the Parade of Horribles

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

As soon as the St. Louis police officers knocked on the door of the home of Vera Thomas in April 1991, a parade of horribles began which culminated with her son, Reggie Clemons, being convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The case is infected by police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, witnesses with motivations to give false testimony, dreadful defense lawyering and blatant racism. All of this led to no justice for Reggie Clemons.

Reggie Clemons was destined to die as soon as he walked into the police station for questioning. The police asked him about the deaths of Julie and Robin Kerry, two young white women who fell to their deaths from the Chain of Rocks Bridge in Missouri. Clemons and three people he was with that night were suspected of robbing, raping and murdering the Kerry sisters and forcing their cousin, Tom Cummins, to jump off the bridge.

At the police station, Clemons was beaten until he cried. When the police began to tape the confession, Clemons invoked his right to an attorney and said that the police had beaten him. When a second tape was made, Clemons confessed to rape because the police were preparing to beat him again. He did not confess to murder.

When he arrived at the jail to be processed, three jail employees contacted internal affairs to inform the unit about Clemons' injuries from the police beating. The abuse was so obvious that even the arraignment judge ordered that Clemons be taken to the hospital. The doctor who examined him recommended plastic surgery.

But the worst part of the beating was not the damage to his face. It was the damage the coerced confession did to his claims of innocence. Astonishingly, the confession was admitted because the trial court did not find that Clemons proved he received his injuries while in police custody,even though he had been in control of the state since he left his mother's home.

Perhaps Clemons would have been able to meet the burden of proving he was beaten by the police if his legal representation was not so inept. When his defense counsel — a husband-wife team — was retained, they did not inform Clemons that they were no longer married. The wife moved to California and did very little investigation. The husband, who was later suspended from the practice of law, did not call witnesses to explain Clemons' injuries. He also filed late and poorly drafted motions and failed to get funding for an expert.

When the husband was about to testify to his own ineffectiveness in Clemons' appeal, the prosecutor threatened the defense counsel with disciplinary action and civil lawsuits. This would not be the only time this prosecutor threatened someone who could hurt his case.

Besides the confession that was beaten out of Clemons, the main evidence against him was from two witnesses: Tom Cummins, the cousin of the Kerry sisters, and Daniel Winfrey, who was with Clemons the night of the incident. Winfrey was the only white defendant in the murders. Winfrey agreed to a plea deal of second-degree murder and is out on parole today. Clemons and his two black co-defendants did not get deals, they got death sentences.

Winfrey's sweetheart deal obviously gave him motivation to lie. His statements to others show that he followed this motivation. In a letter to his girlfriend, Winfrey claimed it was another co-defendant who came up with the idea for the robbery and never said that Clemons raped anyone. He told an inmate that he would "do anything he could to get through this thing." Winfrey also told that inmate that "no one is going to believe a bunch of niggers."

When the prosecutor learned that the defense intended to call Winfrey's cellmate to testify that Winfrey told him that he would "say anything he had to obtain a plea bargain," the prosecutor visited the cellmate with several deputy sheriffs and told him that he would make sure the inmate served a lot of time in prison if Winfrey's cellmate testified. The cellmate did not testify.

The other witness was Tom Cummins, the Kerry sisters' cousin, who was the first person arrested and charged with the murder of the Kerrys. The police become suspicious of Cummins because he claims he also fell off the bridge but survived and swam to safety. The police did not believe that Cummins could live through a 90-foot fall into rough and freezing water and come out bone dry with his hair combed and without injury. The police arrested Cummins and gave him a polygraph test, the results of which indicated deception. Cummins admitted he was responsible for the sisters falling into the water. He also changed his story a few times, including his explanation to police that he had a romantic interest in his cousin Julie. The police beat and threatened Cummins when he said he wanted a lawyer. He later settled a police brutality lawsuit with the St. Louis Police Department for $150,000. Cummins was compensated. Clemons got the death penalty.

To say that Reggie Clemons was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct would be a gross understatement. The prosecutor's transgressions in other cases have been condemned by several state and federal courts. The prosecutor altered police reports. His handwritten notes are on the original transcripts and the changes in the final reports reflect those changes. He never gave the original, unaltered transcripts to the defense, thus not providing Clemons' already woefully inadequate lawyer with all the information necessary to effectively represent him. The prosecutor's threats to Winfrey's cellmate and Clemons' lawyer in both the trial and post-conviction hearings are unconscionable.

Although Clemons was charged with rape and murder, the murder and rape cases against him were severed. The rape charge was used in the trial to help get a death sentence. After Clemons received a death sentence, the rape charges were dropped. There is no physical evidence to show that Clemons committed a rape or murder.

As if it were not enough to stack the deck against Clemons by withholding and tampering with evidence and frightening witnesses, the prosecutor went for broke during closing arguments. Even though he was instructed by the judge at the beginning of the trial to not mention serial killers during closing because it could improperly prejudice the jury, he did anyway. During the sentencing phase, the defense said that Clemons had no criminal record. In his closing argument during the sentencing phase, the prosecutor stood up and said that Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy did not have significant criminal histories either. The statement was not only untrue but defied an earlier ruling from the judge.

After all of the improper behavior by the prosecutor, he was finally held in contempt of court. But by then, it was too late for Reggie Clemons to get any justice in the courtroom.

Clemons was scheduled for execution on June 17, 2009. He received a stay from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Much that can go wrong in our capital punishment process happened to Reggie Clemons. However, this parade of horribles can end. The governor can grant him clemency. Clemons never saw justice; he should at least get a little mercy.

You can contact Missouri Governor Jay Nixon asking him to grant clemency to Reggie Clemons or appoint an independent Board of Inquiry to examine the case. For more information, visit www.justiceforreggie.com.

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William Newmiller

Cases such as this one and the many others we read about everyday have given rise to a grassroots movement to raise awareness about wrongful convictions. On June 27 crowds will gather in many states under the banner of "Freedom March 2009." The national website for this grassroots movement is at http://freedommarchusa.org.

G1000

This is disturbing. Thanks for bringing it to light, ACLU. Give this man a new trial.

Paen

Sounds like a lynching dressed uo as a trial.

Dave Boberg

Sounds a lot like a similar miscarriage of justice which is described in the non-fiction book by John Grisham called "The Innocent Man : Murder and Injustice in a Small Town".

Sarah

This comment is to the author of the article.

Where did you get your facts? How on gods earth would you know what Winfrey wrote in a letter to his girlfriend? If you think Winfrey go such a sweetheart deal, I'd advise you to think about that statement after you have reviewed the case again.

roald

Sarah - perhaps the information came from the girlfriend, perhaps from discovery. Considering that Winfrey was not sentenced to death and is out on parole, yes, he got a sweetheart deal.

Eric

Hang him. If you commit murder you should be executed.

Sarah

For being the ACLU, I can't believe all of the "crap" that was published in this article. I completely believe in freedom of press, but if you are going to write something and present it as non-fiction, then you would think that at least most of the article would be factual.

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