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Clemons will face new trial for 1991 Chain of Rocks murders

Reginald Clemons in 2014
Missouri Department of Corrections

Updated at 4:50 p.m. with comments from Justice for Reggie campaign. A man whose death sentence and murder convictions were overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court in November will face a new trial.

Reginald Clemons was convicted in 1993 of murdering Julie and Robin Kerry, who were raped and thrown off the Chain of Rocks bridge in April 1991. The state Supreme Court last year threw out Clemons' first-degree murder convictions, saying prosecutors had failed to turn over evidence that lent weight to Clemons' claims that he had been assaulted by police before confessing.

On Monday, St. Louis prosecutor Jennifer Joyce announced she would try the case again, and again seek the death penalty.

"While this is a heartbreaking and emotionally charged case for this community, I believe we have the evidence needed to pursue charges and hold Mr. Clemons accountable for the crimes he committed against Julie and Robin Kerry and Thomas Cummins," Joyce wrote in a statement.

At his retrial, Clemons will face not only first-degree murder charges, but also rape and robbery charges. He was initially charged with rape in 1991, but prosecutors were prohibited by law at the time from pursuing those charges after Clemons was sentenced to death.

Charging documents provided by Joyce's office said that in 2011, modern DNA testing found evidence that Clemons had raped at least one of the Kerry sisters.

Joyce said in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio that she had spoken to the Kerry family at length, and said they were supportive of her decision to go forward with a retrial.

"They really want justice for Julie and Robin," she said. "They are willing to do whatever it takes. I think they've shown they can endure anything if there is justice for their girls."

Jeanine Cummins, Thomas's sister, did not wish to comment on Joyce's decision when contacted by email. An editorial she wrote about the case appeared in the New York Times on New Year's Eve.

The case

The sisters were 20 and 19 in April 1991, when they and their cousin, Thomas Cummins, went to the Chain of Rocks bridge in far north St. Louis so Julie Kerry, the older of the two sisters, could show Cummins a poem she had written. While on the bridge, they had a brief conversation with Clemons and the three other defendants.

A short time later, the defendants approached the cousins, and surrounded them. Cummins was ordered to the ground -- Julie and Robin were raped repeatedly by several of the men. All three were then ordered to a concrete pier below the bridge. The young women were pushed to their deaths, and Cummins was forced to jump, but survived. 

Julie Kerry's body was found at the far southern tip of Missouri. Robin Kerry's body was never recovered.

Clemons was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 1993, and sentenced to death. Two other co-defendants would receive the same sentence. Marlin Gray was executed in 2005, and Antonio Richardson had his sentence commuted to life without parole to bring it in line with a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court rulingthat said juries, not judges, should hand down death sentences. 

The fourth defendant, Daniel Winfrey, was 15 at the time of the crimes. He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, rape and armed robbery in September 1992, and was sentenced to no more than 30 years in prison in exchange for his truthful testimony. He was paroled in June 2007, but had his parole revoked in 2011 and again in 2012, and is currently incarcerated at the Farmington Correctional Facility, 70 miles south of St. Louis.

Supreme Court challenges

From the beginning, Clemons and Gray claimed they were beaten before falsely confessing to the crimes. Their accusations were bolstered by Thomas Cummins, who also claimed he had been roughed up in police custody and later received $150,000 in damages. In fact, police first suspected Cummins had killed his cousins before a tip about a stolen flashlight led police to the four defendants.  

The Chain of Rocks bridge
Credit Chris Yunker | Flickr
The Chain of Rocks bridge

Clemons’ attempt to have his confession kept from his 1993 trial was unsuccessful. He filed several unsuccessful state and federal appeals before the Missouri Supreme Court appointed a special master to review his 2009 state habeas corpus claim, in which Clemons claimed new evidence that would support his actual innocence. He also claimed that prosecutors failed to turn over evidence that would prove he had been assaulted by police, and asked the judges to review whether the death sentence was proportional to the crime.

That special master, retired judge Michael Manners, wrote that "I do not believe Clemons has established a gateway to find a claim of actual innocence." But, he found that prosecutors, in violation of Brady vs. Maryland, had not told Clemons' attorney about a pre-trial report written by Warren Weeks that noted Clemons had a bruise or a bump on his right cheek. As a bond investigator, Weeks would have been one of the first people to see Clemons after being in police custody, and his report that Clemons appeared injured could be used to bolster Clemons’ claims that he was assaulted by police.

"In the criminal case, Weeks' testimony may have resulted in the trial court sustaining the motion to suppress [Clemons' confession], in which case Clemons' confession would never have been heard by the jury."

Manners also found that the report had been altered, with someone scratching out the note about Clemons’ injury.

It was on those grounds that the Missouri Supreme Court vacated Clemons' death sentence and conviction, and ordered Jennifer Joyce, the prosecutor, to decide whether to retry the case. She had until Feb. 8 to do so.

"I think we have a lot of good evidence here," Joyce said of her decision to take the case to trial again. "We were able to get DNA evidence developed that wasn't available in 1993 that implicated Mr. Clemons and others in this crime. We're just starting over. This is a reset for us. We have new prosecutors on this case. All of the evidence is available to both sides, and we’re going to go forward." 

The retrial

Judge David Mason on Monday set Clemons’ bond on the rape and robbery charges at $500,000. He is also serving a 15-year sentence for assaulting a prison guard, so is unlikely to be released before trial.

Clemons does not yet have an attorney listed for the new criminal case. Two lawyers who handled his appeals did not immediately return requests for comment.

The Justice for Reggie campaign released the following statement:

"The Justice for Reggie Campaign is disappointed with today's decision by the State of Missouri to proceed with a new trial for Reggie Clemons. The decision comes in the wake of the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling to overthrow Reggie's murder conviction. The 24 year old case has seen many twists and turns and this latest announcement comes as no surprise. We remain committed to Reggie's struggle for the truth and justice."

Staci Pratt, the state coordinator for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, called Joyce's decision to seek both a retrial and the death penalty "highly disappointing."

"When we look at this case, it stands at a prime example of what is wrong with the system of justice in Missouri, and particularly the application of the death penalty," Pratt said. "This process has been so tainted by the prosecutorial misconduct, and the inappropriate way in which police officers obtained evidence by beating people into false confessions and statements and things like that, we must really question whether it's even possible to have a fair trial at this point."

(St. Louis Public Radio redacted Clemons's Social Security number from the charging document. No other changes have been made.)

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.