Appointing special master in capital cases is rare in Missouri

Thursday, July 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — The family of a man convicted of killing two sisters by pushing them off a Missouri bridge nearly two decades ago expressed relief Wednesday over news that a special master — a seldom-used mechanism in capital cases — will investigate claims that he was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death.

"It's a good thing, an excellent thing that brings you a little relief and some joy that someone is searching for truth instead of just policies and procedures that can be devoid of truth," said Reginald Clemons' stepfather and St. Louis minister, Bishop Reynolds Thomas.

Clemons, 37, 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.

His supporters say he had no role in the sisters' deaths, but then-prosecutor Nels Moss has said he has no doubts about Clemons' guilt.

The Missouri Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it has appointed Jackson County Circuit Judge Michael Manners as a special master to take evidence, hear testimony and evaluate Clemons' claims.

Attorney General Chris Koster said he welcomed the appointment of a special master, noting the seriousness of the crimes and community concerns.

"I trust that a review by a Special Master will ultimately support that end," he said in a statement issued Wednesday. Clemons' lead attorney, Josh Levine, also said he was pleased with the appointment, especially because it is rarely used in capital cases.

The appointment of a special master was in response to a June 12 petition filed in the Supreme Court that 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.

It's unclear whether the court's broad order limits Manners to those two areas, or authorizes him to explore other concerns raised in Clemons' petition, such as claims of prosecutorial misconduct and ineffective assistance of counsel.

Beth Riggert, communications counsel for the Supreme Court, said the appointment of a special master is allowed under the rules but is not common.

She said Manners will conduct hearings much like a trial, collecting evidence and creating a record for the Supreme Court to review. Manners was out of the office Wednesday and didn't return calls seeking comment.



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