Friday, May 22, 2009

Bridge over troubled prosecutions

My day job as editor of The St. Louis American has knocked my blogging temporarily out of commission, what with Reginald Clemons being handed his death warrant by the Missouri Supreme Court the same week Paul McKee Jr. made his most public presentation of his proposed development in North St. Louis.

Two big, and very different, stories for St. Louis. I did say the stories are very different. I'll pass on the metaphor of McKee as rapist of the North Side (thanks).

Our paper has been following the Chain of Rocks Bridge rapes and murders since 1991, when the tragedy transpired. In the five years I have been at the paper, Marlin Gray - one of Clemons' co-defendants - was executed. We have all been waiting for Reginald Clemons' number to come up next. His number, it turns out, is June 17, 2009.

We got the news on Monday, and between running my brokenlegged wife to doctor's appointments along with every family errand, I managed to put together what I consider a very newsy and thoroughly sourced story about Clemons' legal status, even reporting the grounds on which his lawyers were filing a stay of execution before they had filed it.

A friend of mine, who knew the Kerry girls who were raped and murdered that April night in 1991, read my story and sent me a note. He said he understood that there are different standards of justice for black men and white men in St. Louis and Missouri, but wasn't there a more important question: Did Reginald Clemons rape and kill those girls?

I wrote him back to say my story was a news story about what was new. What was new was that his execution date had been set and his lawyers had apparently good grounds for requesting a stay - namely, that Clemons had an appeal pending. I reminded him that, unless Clemons' conviction for murder were reversed and a new trial date set, his guilt or innocence was beside the point, in terms of the disposition of his case. His problems were procedural now and his solutions were procedural, and a news report on his case that had any juice would have to be procedural.

I later called my friend to point out that I had been thinking and responding as a journalist when I answered his question. I also happen to be a human being and (like my friend) the father of a little girl, and yes, I do understand, the question of guilt and innocence in matters of rape and murder do matter dearly.

As I noted the last time I had the presence of mind to blog, there is evidence that Clemons' confession was beat out of him. As I now read the appeal his lawyers prepared for the Missouri Supreme Court in 1996 (which the court rejected), it suggested Clemons confessed to rape before the alleged beatings, adding a murder confession afterwards. I look forward to interviewing Clemons face-to-face on camera next week and giving him an opportunity to come clean, once and for all, about what happened that night (a fantasy all journalists entertain regarding people with disputed convictions, I know).

I have posted up his lawyers' appeal, for all to read. I don't understand why this document didn't convince the Missouri Supreme Court that Reginald Clemons deserved a new trial. The presentation of prosecutorial misconduct on the part of Nels Moss seems clear to me. Though I don't present myself as an expert on Missouri case law, the legal precedents are laid out along the way and seem to be compelling.

This following bit alone is amazing to me. I reprint from the appeal verbatim, taking out only citations. Antonio Richardson was another of the four co-defendants. He is serving life in prison. "Daniel" or "Danny" was Daniel Winfrey, the fourth co-defendant (and the only one who was not black). He cooperated with the prosecution and is out on parole today.


In Clemons' trial, Moss argued that Clemons was the criminal mastermind and the prime actor in the murder of the Kerrys. The prosecutor frequently referred to the diminutive size and youth of Antonio Richardson, and minimized Antonio Richardson's role in the events on the Bridge, while maximizing Clemons' culpability:

[Referring to Antonio Richardson] This massive five-foot-five, one-forty pound teenager, and his buddy, this massive hulk, he's the mastermind. He's the planner, is that really true—honestly—who has been to the bridge before, and Marlin who has been to the bridge before—not Daniel. And who led two out of the three people to the hole. Was it Marlin? No. Was it Tony? No. Was it Danny? No. Who led two out of the three people to the hold? He did [indicating Clemons].
But in Antonio Richardson's trial, the prosecutor stated:

Who's the person, and listen to this, please, who's the person that led this first
young lady to that killing hole like leading a lamb to slaughter. Who? Who?
Was it Marlin Gray? Was it Reginald Clemons? It was him [Referring to Antonio Richardson]. It was him who did it. No one else.
Moss further described Antonio Richardson as "...five foot five, a hundred seventy pound or a hundred sixty pounds," as opposed to the mere one hundred and forty pounds ascribed to Antonio Richardson during the Clemons trial.

One of these statements was simply not true. And Moss, who made both of them, knew it. The State cannot manipulate the facts to suit an overwhelming desire for a conviction. That is what happened here; it violated Clemons rights under the Fifth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


I know for a fact Julie and Robin Kerry are dead, and their parents and families were robbed of many years of joy. I doubt that we will ever get a truly clear and convincing picture of what happened on that bridge that night and who played precisely what role in their rapes and murders.

I am also certain that the public record of events as handed down from the trials is terribly flawed and points to errors in criminal justice that deserve to be corrected, if we believe in the rule of law. Or, if the reasoning is that two black men should die because two white women were killed, regardless of how the prosections are arrived at, I would rather that be admitted and not obscured under tortured readings of crystal-clear appeals.


View from Chain of Rocks Bridge from somebody's Flickr site.

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