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.
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.
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.
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."