ST. LOUIS — Evidence that has come to light in the years since Reginald Clemons was convicted of killing two sisters sheds doubt on his involvement in the crime, the death row inmate's attorney told a judge Monday at a hearing re-examining the case.
Clemons was one of four men convicted in the 1991 killings of 20-year-old Julie Kerry and 19-year-old Robin Kerry. The sisters and their cousin, Thomas Cummins, who was in town visiting, were pushed off an abandoned bridge into the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Cummins survived.
The case has drawn the attention of groups opposed to the death penalty, including rights group Amnesty International. And concerns were strong enough that Jackson County Circuit Judge Richard Manners was appointed to preside over the special hearing. He will issue a report to the Missouri Supreme Court, which will decide whether to commute Clemons' death sentence and possibly require a new trial. That ruling isn't expected for several months.
Clemons, 41, attended the hearing dressed in a dark suit with a red tie. He was not handcuffed or shackled, but two police officers sat directly behind him, and two others sat along the center aisle. The courtroom was packed, mostly with supporters of Clemons.
The hearing is expected to last about a week.
On the night of April 5, 1991, the Kerry sisters took their cousin Cummins, then 19, to the abandoned Chain of Rocks Bridge to show him a poem they had written on the span. They were approached by four young men. The sisters were raped and pushed off the bridge. Cummins also was pushed.
Julie Kerry's body was found three weeks later, 150 miles downriver. Robin Kerry's body was never recovered.
Clemons was 12 days away from being put to death in 2009 when the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals postponed the punishment over concerns about Missouri's execution method.
"Without the 8th Circuit, Reggie would be dead," Clemons' attorney Josh Levine said.
In opening statements Monday, Levine cited what he called "injustice during every point in Reggie's road to death row." Levine alleged that police questioning Clemons about the crime beat a confession out of him. The lawyer also said key evidence was withheld from the original defense lawyers, including a medical examiner's test that showed no evidence that Julie Kerry was raped.
Assistant Attorney General Sue Boresi said there was ample evidence to convict Clemons. She described how the sisters were raped on the bridge while their cousin was forced to the ground.
Boresi said all three were then led through a manhole down to a lower deck of the bridge. She said Clemons blocked the manhole — the only escape route — while another man, Antonio Richardson, shoved the victims over the railing.
Clemons confessed to the killings but later recanted. He is expected to testify that police beat him into confessing.
The sisters' cousin, Cummins, also originally confessed to the crime, but the handling of his confession raised additional concerns, Levine said.
According to the original police report, Cummins told officers he made sexual advances on Julie Kerry. When she spurned the advances, the report said, they argued as she sat on a bridge railing and he accidentally pushed her over the railing. The report said Cummins claimed to have "blacked out" before realizing he had either pushed Robin Kerry over the railing, too, or that she had jumped in to save her sister.
But Clemons' trial attorney, Jeanene Moenckmeier, testified Monday that the defense lawyers were given a revised report that downplayed Cummins' alleged confession. She said that report had Cummins saying Julie Kerry fell on her own, and Robin Kerry jumped in after her sister. It also excluded a quote from Cummins about the alleged confession: "That's the truth. Believe me."
Cummins later recanted and received a $150,000 settlement over allegations that he was beaten by police.
Moenckmeier said the original prosecutor in the case, Nels Moss, did not disclose that the medical examiner performed a rape analysis after the body of Julie Kerry was found. The analysis found no evidence of rape. The existence of a rape kit only came to light in 2010.
Boresi said Julie Kerry's body was so decomposed after three weeks in the river that evidence of rape was no longer detectable.
Of the other three suspects in the case, Marlin Gray was executed in 2005; Richardson is serving life in prison after his death penalty was overturned because of a procedural error; and Daniel Winfrey pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after agreeing to testify against the others. He was released on parole five years ago.