ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Supreme Court late Tuesday appointed a special master to investigate claims that condemned prisoner Reginald Clemons was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.
The court appointed Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners to take evidence, hear testimony and evaluate Clemons' claims.
Clemons was sentenced for the April 1991 murders of Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, in St. Louis. His execution was set for June 17, but a federal appeals court delayed it.
A petition filed June 12 with the Missouri Supreme Court argues that new evidence supports Clemons' claim that police brutalized him into giving a statement. They also say Clemons' death sentence was out of proportion because a more culpable co-defendant received a lighter sentence.
Mark Arnold, one of Clemons' attorneys, said they did not request a special master but that the court acted on its own in appointing one to consider the claims. It's not clear when and where the hearings will be held.
Clemons' mother and stepfather, Vera and Reynolds Thomas — along with supporters including U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis — have said Clemons had no role in the Kerry sisters' deaths. Then-prosecutor Nels Moss has said he has no doubts about Clemons' guilt. He could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.
Prosecutors say Clemons and three acquaintances met the sisters and their male cousin for the first time on the abandoned Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, then forced the three of them into the Mississippi River. The cousin survived.
Clemons' mother and stepfather say their son went to the bridge that night and saw the Kerrys, but that Clemons and his friends did not kill the women.
The case against Clemons rested largely on the trial testimony of one of Clemons' acquaintances, Daniel Winfrey, and of the sisters' cousin, Tom Cummins. Cummins had initially confessed under police questioning to making a sexual advance at one of the sisters, who he said lost her balance and fell off the bridge, adding that the other jumped in to try and save her.
He later recanted, suing police after testifying in the Clemons trial, and he received $150,000 to settle claims of police brutality and fabrication. Details of the settlement were sealed.
That lawsuit and settlement, Clemons' attorneys say, provide new evidence that supports Clemons' own claim that he was assaulted by the same police officers and coerced into giving a statement.
Clemons' attorneys say the state lacked any physical evidence tying Clemons to the Kerrys' deaths, but relied on the then-19-year-old's police-coerced statement. It implicated him in crimes before the murders, although Clemons denied consistently he had killed them. Clemons has said he admitted to raping the women, figuring he'd never be convicted for lack of evidence.
Cummins could not say whether Clemons was on the bridge platform from which the girls were pushed. Winfrey testified he didn't see who pushed the sisters, the court petition says.
Marlin Gray, who also was convicted in the Kerrys' deaths, was executed in 2005.
Antonio Richardson had his death sentence in the Kerrys' murder overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1993 because he had been sentenced by a judge after jurors deadlocked without agreeing on the factors needed for the death penalty.
Winfrey, who testified for the prosecution, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He has been released from prison and is on parole.