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Judge names Missouri attorney general as special prosecutor in Clemons murder case

The Chain of Rocks bridge
Chris Yunker | Flickr
Judge Rex Burlison has appointed a special prosecutor in the case of Reginald Clemons, who is facing the dealth penalty for a 1991 murder at the Chain of Rocks bridge, pictured here.

Updated at 12:00 p.m. with comments from Clemons' supporters. — Missouri's attorney general will be taking over the retrials of Reginald Clemons.

St. Louis Circuit Judge Rex Burlisongranted the request of circuit attorney Jennifer Joyce late Thursday evening, agreeing that the turnover that happens after an election had left her office understaffed and unable to prosecute the case.

"... the court has been made aware of personnel and staffing issues that will have a direct effect on the ability of the Circuit Attorney's Office to comply with the [Missouri] Supreme Court's directive that the murder case be prosecuted expeditiously," Burlison wrote in his order. "These issues will also affect the  the ability of the Circuit Attorney's Office to timely prosecute the rape and robbery case, and to comply with the defendant's request for the prompt disposition of such charges."

Clemons is facing the death penalty for the 1991 murder of sisters Julie and Robin Kerry, who were pushed from the Chain of Rocks bridge. His earlier conviction was thrown out because of prosecutorial misconduct. Clemons is also facing rape and robbery charges connected to the Kerry sisters' death — the attorney general's office will handle that case as well.

Credit Missouri Department of Corrections
Reginald Clemons in a 2014 photo.

Attorneys for Clemons opposed Joyce's request, arguing that special prosecutors could be appointed only in limited circumstances. 

"To take the circuit attorney responsible for deciding to prosecute the case off the case flies in the face of the integrity of the judicial system," public defender Charles Moreland told Burlision during a hearing on the special prosecutor request Wednesday. "The claim of resources is a farce."

Moreland's co-counsel, Heather Vodnansky, also found it ironic that prosecutors were claiming a lack of resources, given the well-documented concerns of public defenders about their caseloads.

Joyce, who did not run for a fifth term, leaves office Jan. 1. She'll be replaced by Kimberly Gardner. 

"If the circuit attorney-elect has different feelings about the case, it will no longer be her decision," Vodnansky told Burlison on Wednesday. "I don't know if she will be favorable to my client, but they are taking large moves to silence her."

"For them to do a preemptive strike seems to undermine even the role of the prosecuting attorney," said Jamala Rogers with the Justice for Reggie Campaign. “Whenever there’s an election of a new prosecuting attorney, there’s turnover in that office and it has never resulted in major cases being turned over."

Rachel Smith, one of Joyce's top prosecutors, said Gardner did not express any concerns about having a special prosecutor take over. Gardner did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to a new circuit attorney, there will be a new attorney general, Republican Josh Hawley. Joyce's office wrote in her initial request for a special prosecutor that the attorney general's staff "do not object to the Court's appointment of them as special prosecutor ... and will obey any court's order." Hawley's transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether that statement was true for the incoming administration.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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