By Jesse Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –
WASHINGTON (NNPA) - By listening to the upbeat tone of his voice on the phone, one could not tell that Reginald Clemons has been on death row in the state of Missouri for half of his life for a crime he says he didn't commit.
Last year he was on the brink of having his life ended before being granted a stay of execution and now he is cautiously optimistic about an upcoming hearing on May 10.
“I know that God has put me through all of this for a purpose. I don't know what purpose it is but I would not still be here without the prayers and works of my family and supporters,” said Clemons to The Final Call in a March 15 telephone interview.
“Last year I was staring death in the face but I am alive to keep fighting. I know it was due in large part to the support of Minister Farrakhan and the story that appeared in The Final Call newspaper. The Final Call helped to save my life. Without that story my plight would not have spread as fast and my wrongful execution would have been carried out in darkness,” said Clemons, 38, referring to the article appearing in FCN Volume 28 No. 35 dated June 9, 2009.
According to Clemons, at the upcoming hearing in May, Judge Michael Manners of Jackson County will either decide to give him a new trial, set a new execution date or recommend his immediate release.
“It is very unprecedented that they would bring in a judge from another jurisdiction but they wanted someone who could look at this case objectively. I hope he will see the crookedness that has been done by the prosecutor in this case the entire time,” said Clemons.
On March 8, the Missouri Attorney General's office asked that Judge Manners consider some evidence that has been held in cold storage at the police department's crime lab. According to the letter from the AG's office to the judge “the state has discovered three laboratory reports and certain physical evidence, including what is commonly referred to as a rape kit. The evidence had not been previously disclosed as part of the state's case against Mr. Clemons,” the letter said.
“Why was this evidence withheld all this time? This further shows the prosecutorial misconduct of Nel Moss,” said Clemons, who also has several inventions that he is seeking to get patented while imprisoned.
Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death in connection with the 1991 deaths of two White siblings, Robin and Julie Kerry, who drowned after falling from the Chain of the Rocks Bridge into the Mississippi River. Clemons has maintained his innocence and has stated that he gave coerced confessions after suffering multiple beatings from St. Louis Metropolitan police detectives.
On June 17, 2009, Clemons was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit granted a stay. On June 30, the Missouri Supreme Court appointed Judge Manners as special master to review Clemons' case.
“The appointment of a special master to a case like this is unheard of in the judicial history of St. Louis. This is only a testament to the intensified efforts on the ground. This new hearing gives us hope but we still have to wait to see what the judge decides,” said Zaki Baruti of the Universal African Peoples Organization.
Jamala Rogers, lead coordinator of the “Justice For Reggie” campaign, told The Final Call that the stay of execution was a victory and agrees that the grassroots mobilization has impacted this case.
“Missouri has never seen such a mobilization upsurge like this surrounding a case like they have seen for Reggie. He deserves his day in court. We're not stopping. We are still encouraging everyone to sign the petitions online because we want Reggie totally free,” said Rogers, who has worked alongside Vera Thomas, Clemons' mother, and this legal defense team.
According to Clemons' supporters, the two White victims went missing after visiting the Chain of Rocks Bridge with their White male cousin. The bridge had become a popular hangout for local teens. They added that the cousin told police that the girls had been raped and pushed from the bridge, while he was robbed and ordered to jump by an unknown assailant, and that he survived the nearly 80-foot fall into strong currents with no injuries and dry hair. Furthermore, the supporters note that the cousin confessed to the crime within hours but was never arrested.
Instead, the police apprehended Clemons and three other youth who were also hanging out on the bridge that night. The three Black males received a death sentence. The fourth young male, who is White, received a 30-year sentence and is presently on parole. The cousin of the victims would later retract his confession and the city courts awarded him $150,000 after he charged that St. Louis law enforcement beat the confession out of him.
In April 1991, a then 19-year-old Clemons testified to Internal Affairs that he was forced into confessing to raping the victims because of brutal beatings by two detectives during interrogation. Clemons recounted how his head was slammed repeatedly against the walls of the interrogation room which paralleled the documented stories of co-defendant Marlin Gray. Officers denied the claims.
In 2005, Gray was convicted and put to death by lethal injection. Co-defendant Antonio Richardson is now serving a life sentence and the lone White co-defendant in the case, Daniel Winfrey, was released on parole in 2007.
Both Clemons and Gray were given death sentences by the state under the law of “accomplice liability” although prosecutors conceded that Clemons neither pushed the women over bridge nor plotted their deaths. There has been no physical evidence, fingerprints, DNA or hair samples linking Clemons to the crime.
“This case is only a reflection of the racism against young Black men in this country. There are many young men like Reggie Clemons sitting on death row,” said Baruti.
Missourians lobbying for a moratorium on the death penalty
On March 17, as part of the Moratorium Now! network, eighteen organizations seeking an end to the death penalty in Missouri participated in a statewide lobby day at the capitol in Jefferson City. According to organizers, the purpose of the rally was to call for a two-year moratorium on executions in Missouri while a commission studies the death penalty system in terms of cost and fairness of the process and practice in the state.
“We applaud Rep. Deeken and Sen. Justus for their efforts. Although Rep. Deeken is a supporter of the death penalty he is concerned about wrongful executions,” Jeff Stacks of Moratorium Now! told The Final Call.
In the Missouri House of Representatives, Rep. Bill Deeken (R-Jefferson City) is the sponsor of HB 1683, the bill for moratorium and study. In the Senate, Sen. Jolie Justus (D-Kansas City) is the sponsor of the similar bill SB 930.
“We're pressing for this moratorium on the death penalty because there is a question of whether the state can get it right. The case of Reggie Clemons proves that state can't always get it right especially with evidence now coming out after nearly 20 years,” said Renee Boman, a field director for the group Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, to The Final Call.
Said Rogers, “I believe the death penalty needs to be abolished completely."
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