Activists set to meet at MU to protest death penalty for Reggie Clemons

Saturday, February 18, 2012 | 5:20 p.m. CST; updated 2:21 p.m. CST, Monday, February 20, 2012
Friends of Julie and Robin Kerry comfort one another while standing on the old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis. Mike Vogt, right, is joined by Hollee McClain, Sean Hogan and Libby Hodges. The picture was taken on April 15, 1991, 11 days after the Kerry sisters drowned in the Mississippi River. One man, Marlin Gray, was convicted and executed in connection with their deaths. Another man, Reggie Clemons, is appealing his conviction on the charges, and friends and anti-death penalty groups are hoping to convince Missouri to repeal the death penalty.

COLUMBIA The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge has stood crooked just downstream of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers since it was built in 1929. Hooked 22 degrees at its middle — a concession to the river that would not let it run true — it once took motorists between St. Louis and Madison, Ill., along a stretch of historic Route 66.

In 1968 it was decommissioned in favor of a larger bridge built square to the river to ferry Interstate 270 across. Then came 23 years of neglect and disuse until it became a murder scene on the night of April 4, 1991, when Julie and Robin Kerry dropped from the bridge more than 60 feet into the Mississippi River where they drowned.

If you go

Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty-Columbia chapter and the MU Law School’s ACLU chapter will host "The Troubling Case of Reggie Clemons" at 7 p.m. Monday in Room 6 of Hulston Hall at the MU School of Law.

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The body of Julie, 20 years old at the time, washed up three weeks later, 150 miles downstream. The body of her younger sister, 19, was never found.

Monday night, activists will meet at MU in support of one of four men convicted of forcing the Kerry sisters from the bridge to their deaths. And for the first time in state history, they will be voicing support for a bill sponsored by a Republican representative that calls for the abolition of the death penalty in Missouri.

A curious case

Reggie Clemons was indicted on charges of rape and robbery and convicted in 1993 on two counts of first-degree murder for pushing the Kerry sisters off the bridge.

But the facts to support that conviction have been a point of contention for almost 20 years.

The primary witness against Clemons was Thomas Cummins, a cousin of the Kerry sisters. The night the sisters were lost to the Mississippi, Cummins claimed he and the sisters met Clemons and three other men on the bridge. According to press reports at the time, the four men led them through a manhole in the road to a platform below the bridge, and there the gang of four restrained Cummins and raped the sisters before pitching all three of them to the river below.

But that was not Cummins’ first account of the events, Clemons’ supporters are quick to point out.

During his initial interrogation by police, Cummins confessed that he had made sexual advances toward Julie on the pier below the bridge and that during the ensuing struggle between them, Robin fell. Julie dove in after her.

But Cummins claimed his confession was coerced. He later sued the St. Louis Police Department and settled a lawsuit with the department for $150,000, according to the St. Louis American. 

Clemons claimed he, too, had been beaten by police into confessing that he raped one of the sisters, though he has always maintained he did not push anyone off the bridge. And indeed, the judge sent Clemons to a hospital when he arrived at his arraignment with serious visible injuries.

But when one of the four men accused — the only white male of the four, Clemons’ supporters point out — traded corroborating testimony for a lesser plea, Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death, despite no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

Curiously, all four men were separately convicted as accomplices to the crimes, said Jeff Stack of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, who is co-presenting the Clemons event at MU with the Law School’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

Stack and Clemons’ other supporters who oppose the death penalty say the judicial process failed the accused utterly — beginning with police coercion, then prosecutorial misconduct, inadequate defense counsel and biased jury selection.

In arguing the irreversibility of an execution, they also cite the work of organizations such as the Innocence Project which uses DNA analysis to review evidence in death sentence convictions. According to the project’s website, in the U.S. there have been 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations since the technology became available. Of the convicts representing those figures, 17 had been under a death sentence before DNA evidence led to their release.

In Missouri, seven people have been exonerated, post-conviction, through the project. Three men have had their death sentences overturned and charges dismissed.

In the decades after his conviction, Clemons’ case for clemency has attracted support from groups and individuals such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the ACLU, actor Danny Glover, the Catholic Bishops of Missouri, Amnesty International and several other death penalty opponents within the state and around the country.

Unlikely allies

On Feb. 15, some of Clemons’ supporters partnered with an unlikely ally to present House Bill 1520 to the Committee on Corrections in Jefferson City. Republican Rep. Mike McGhee, R-Odessa, sponsored the bill and brought six witnesses, to testify at a hearing on the bill Wednesday night. McGhee and Rep. Michael Brown, D-Kansas City, also testified for the bill.

McGhee is the first Republican to champion such a bill in Missouri. Previous efforts by Democrats had failed, most recently after Illinois repealed its death penalty law in 2011.

At the committee hearing, McGhee discussed the bill as a matter of fiscal rectitude during lean years for the state budget. He testified Missouri could save as much as $300 million in costs by commuting the sentences of 46 inmates currently on death row in Missouri to life without the possibility of parole. He attributes the savings primarily to the high cost of appeals in death sentence trials which are borne by the state. On the contrary, he noted that costs associated with non-death penalty appeals fall on the convicts and their families.

Charlie Rogers, vice president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also pointed to savings in the Missouri State Public Defender System, which has 38 staff members devoted to death penalty appeals. He called the death penalty “a luxury we cannot afford.”

Cathleen Burnett, a professor in the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, estimated that only one in 30 death sentences results in execution in Missouri. Including the costs of the other 29 sentences overturned on appeal or commuted to life in prison, a single execution can cost taxpayers as much as $30 million, she said.

But strict economy is not the only issue at play. McGhee said he discussed the merits of the bill with his pastor who pointed to Scriptures on both sides of the issue. McGhee said he was left with this question: “When do we stop the killing?” After much soul-searching, he decided abolishing the death penalty would be consistent with his own pro-life convictions.

Still, McGhee admits, the bill might not be well-received by some of his colleagues or constituents and probably doesn’t stand much chance of passage this term.

But long odds against the bill would not deter the testimony of Ginger Masters, whose husband, David, was murdered in 2005.

“Seven years ago started a nightmare for my family,” Masters testified.

David Masters, her husband of 28 1/2 years, was killed by people who injected him with a lethal dose of cocaine. But Ginger Masters asked the attorney prosecuting the men responsible for her husband’s death not to seek the death penalty.

“I don’t think the state should be in the business of killing its citizens," she told the legislative committee at last week's hearing. "I say this in the face of the two people convicted of the murder of my husband.”

Like McGhee, Masters admits her stance has not always been understood by others. She has been challenged by people who question her loyalty to her husband’s memory. But she said her love for her husband has never wavered, and she does not forgive those who took him from her.

Stack, who has known Masters since just after the death of her husband, maintains “the death penalty is a pretty sorry memorial to a loved one.”

In his experience working with victims’ families in death penalty cases, he said: “It’s a myth to talk in terms of closure (for the family).”

Remember the victims

Clemons' mother, Vera Thomas, will speak at Monday night’s meeting at MU. She could not be reached for comment.

Of the three other men originally convicted of the Kerry sisters’ murders:

  • Antonio Richardson’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
  • Daniel Winfrey has been given parole.
  • Marlin Gray was executed by the state on Oct. 26, 2005. “This is not a death. It is a lynching," he said in his final statement, maintaining his innocence.

Clemons narrowly escaped one execution date in 2009 after a stay was granted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Louis. Now his case is scheduled to be reviewed by a court-appointed special master on March 5 to review any claims that Clemons was wrongfully convicted.

Stack remains hopeful that McGhee’s efforts may inspire others to push Missouri to legislatively abolish the death penalty. But he said he strives not to lose focus on the victims of the crime.

“It’s easy to lose track of the original victims, when convicts become victims of the state,” he said.

In her book describing her brother Thomas Cummins' ordeal after the Kerry sisters' deaths, Jeanine Cummins wrote that she believed her cousins, Julie and Robin, were against the death penalty.

"What no one can know is whether that terrible night (at Old Chain of Rocks) would have altered those views or not," she wrote. "There's no point in wondering."

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Ed Lane February 19, 2012 | 11:32 a.m.

The death penalty if a great tool. To quote, "He called the death penalty “a luxury we cannot afford.” If the death were used more frequently and without all the appeals (which mainly benefit the lawyers), it would be a very effective tool ----- and also take care of repeat offenders.
Why should we support someone for a lifetime (which most death penalty cases take to resolve)? With all the luxury of prison these days, i.e., TV, weight rooms, paid education, etc. I'm kinda sick of providing all the luxuries to convicted criminals!!!!!!!!!!!

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum February 19, 2012 | 11:52 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Jon McClure February 19, 2012 | 12:43 p.m.

Hi Ed,

Thanks for your comment. I'm the reporter who worked on this story.

There was one part of Cathleen Burnett's testimony at Wednesday's hearing that I didn't include in this story but which I think does speak to the utility of the death penalty as a law enforcement tool. I'd like to add that now as neutrally as possible from my position as a reporter and to contribute Burnett’s counter argument to the substantive debate which I think you’ve raised in your comment.

Burnett, who again is advocating for this bill, testified that the Missouri Police Chiefs Association ranked the death penalty the least effective deterrent to criminals in their entire crime fighting arsenal. And I’ll leave it to you to qualify what that statement might mean and whether a faster appeals process would change the death penalty’s usefulness for law enforcement.

Again, thank you for your comment and I appreciate you presenting your opinion in this very difficult and manifold debate.

-Jon McClure

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote February 19, 2012 | 1:41 p.m.


Putting aside eighth amendment arguments against the death penalty, the application of the death penalty is far from equitable vis a vis the race of the perpetrator/victim. Even more troubling is that the error rate (convinctions of innocent persons) is not zero. Restricting appeals and shortening the date of execution post-conviction will increase that error rate. I find it puzzling that one would endorse a policy that would increase the rate at which innocent people were executed.

(Report Comment)
Louis Schneebaum February 19, 2012 | 8:38 p.m.

John McClure,

I don't see how someone spouting ignorant rhetoric in the form of an online comment rife with grammatical errors adds to this debate in a substantive way. It has been well documented that many on death row are not guilty of the crimes of which they are accused, having been coerced to make statements by abusive law enforcement officials. Many of these unfortunate souls are then rushed through the legal system by voracious state's attorneys, with less than adequate representation to defend themselves (often an overworked public defender). Furthermore, this glaringly obvious systemic problem is biased against persons of color. How then is Ed's comment additive to a legitimate debate about anything? He merely asserts the same tired, typical conservative response; he suggests that if we simply remove the ability of a convicted person to defend his/herself and kill them more quickly, then the problem is solved...

The fact that you humor his wretchedly asinine comment raises serious questions about your legitimacy...

(Report Comment)
mike mentor February 20, 2012 | 5:15 p.m.

I guess the point is to encourage debate from both sides. In your opinion his post is wretched. But that is your opinion. There are many who think like he does. The fact that the reporter would be open to listening to other views shows that maybe he is more grounded than others who might think they know they are right and any other opinion on the matter is worthless or worse.

In general terms, I think to completely scrap something just because there are some problems or it's not perfect is usually not the best course of action. I don't want to scrap our whole justice system just because it is not perfect. Having said that, I also realize we are talking about death here and I wholeheartedly believe that killing an innocent person is much worse than not killing a guilty person.

IMHO, we have plenty of room to look to improve the system before we scrap the death penalty all together. The Ryan Ferguson case is a good example of a case that hinged on questionable witness testimony and no physical evidence. I would certainly be against someone being put to death based on that kind of case. However, if we have a signed confession, DNA evidence beyond 99%, a videotape of the crime that clearly shows the accused in action and multiple witness's that all tell the same story, I have no problem with assessing the death penalty in that case. So, IMHO, we can try to improve the system and maybe raise the bar in terms of what kinds of evidence must be present in order to apply the death penalty. If we raise the bar on the front end to limit the kinds of cases that would involve the death penalty then I would have no problem with having some sort of "defined benefit" plan that says the perp has so much to spend on appeals and so many years to get it done. It's tough to talk about money when someones life is at stake, but we do it now. If a person or company is sued for wrongful death we attach a monetary value to that case. IMHO, I am priceless, but not everyone agrees ;-)

(Report Comment)
Clay Cottingham February 20, 2012 | 8:28 p.m.

Jon -

Can you check your facts on the sidebar? It states "Julie Kerry, shown at age 19, of Gaithersburg, Md". Her cousin, Thomas Cummins is of Gaithersburg, MD. I believe that Julie and Robin were both natives of St Louis.

(Report Comment)

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