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Missouri Supreme Court tosses out murder conviction and death sentence against Reginald Clemons

Poster of Reginald Clemons at a rally in the State Capitol, Jefferson City.
Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Poster of Reginald Clemons at a rally in the State Capitol, Jefferson City.

Reginald Clemons may get a new trial.

In a 4-to-3 decision Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court tossed out both his conviction and death sentence in the 1991 rape and murders of sisters Julie and Robin Kerry on the Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis. The sisters, who were 20 and 19, had brought a visiting cousin to the bridge to show him a poem they had written. The cousin was the only one who survived being pushed from the bridge into the Mississippi River.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge, the high court agreed with an opinion issued in 2013 by judge Michael Manners, who was appointed a special master to review Clemons' case.  It reads in part:

"The state had violated Brady (v. Maryland, 1963) by failing to produce evidence favorable to Mr. Clemons that a witness observed an injury to Mr. Clemons' face shortly after a police interrogation and that the witness documented his observations of the injury in a written report that was later altered by the state. The master determined that the state's failure to disclose this evidence was prejudicial to Mr. Clemons because it could have led to the suppression of Mr. Clemons' confession, a critical part of the state's case against Mr. Clemons. Substantial evidence supports the master's findings that the state deliberately violated Brady and that, in the absence of the undisclosed material evidence, the jury's verdicts are not worthy of confidence. Accordingly, this Court vacates Mr. Clemons' convictions and sentences for first-degree murder."

State Supreme Court Judges Laura Denvir Stith and Richard Teitelman, along with Appeals Court Judge Lisa White Hardwick, concurred with the majority opinion. Hardwick was brought in because Supreme Court Judge George Draper recused himself from the case.

The dissent, written by Judge Paul Wilson, reads in part:

"I do not know whether Clemons was beaten to compel him to give the equivocal, barely inculpatory, audiotaped statement. He claims the officers beat him; they deny his claims. Other witnesses ... say they saw injuries to Clemons' face at various times in the hours and days after his interrogation; still others say they saw no such injuries. But all of these witnesses ... admit they have no personal knowledge of what caused Clemons' injuries (if any), and they all admit they did not observe any officer strike Clemons at any time or for any reason. Finally, there were no medical records supporting Clemons' claim, and neither the photographs taken four and a half hours after Clemons' interrogation nor those taken 36 hours later show signs of any such injuries."

Wilson also said that Clemons has not shown that he's "more likely than not" to actually be innocent.

Supreme Court judges Mary Russell and Zel Fischer concurred with Wilson's dissent.

The state now has 60 days to file a new motion to retry Clemons. Otherwise the murder charges against him will be dismissed, as mandated by Chief Justice Breckenridge's order.

Clemons will remain in prison because of a conviction several years ago for assaulting a corrections officer.

Josh Levine, Clemons' attorney, issued the following statement:

"We are simply thrilled by today's decision ... the Missouri Supreme Court has upheld Mr. Clemons' constitutional right to a fair trial, which is all he has sought from the beginning. We are deeply grateful for the Court's decision and its willingness to protect the Due Process rights of Mr. Clemons and citizens everywhere."

St. Louis circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce also issued a statement on what steps her office will take. It reads in part:

"Prosecutors ... will review the (State Supreme) Court's decision in its entirety. As this crime occurred almost 25 years ago, we will need to review the State's evidence, determine the availability of witnesses and reporting officers in the case, and discuss our options with the victims' family. Once we have completed this process, we will then determine the appropriate course of action within the allotted period of time. Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family of Julie and Robin Kerry."

Meanwhile, the Justice for Reggie campaign is praising the ruling.

"Since 1991, a fair trial is all that we've ever demanded for Reggie," said campaign coordinator Jamala Rogers. "While the family and many of Reggie's supporters maintained his innocence in the murders of Julie and Robin Kerry, it was important that the facts be presented in a court of law. We never got that opportunity with the misconduct of police and the prosecutor. Now, hopefully, justice will come."

Clemons was originally convicted in the murders along with Marlin Gray, Antonio Richardson and Daniel Winfrey. Gray was executed by lethal injection in 2005, while Richardson's death sentence was later changed to life without parole. Winfrey testified against Clemons, Gray and Richardson in exchange for a lighter sentence. He received a 30-year sentence, but was paroled in 2007.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.