Bias, Misconduct and Error: Reggie Clemons and Missouri's Tragically Flawed Death Penalty

May 11, 2010

This is the bridge where it all happened at a very late hour in April, 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri.  Two young white women plunged into the Mississippi River to their deaths.  It was a horrible, senseless tragedy.  Three African American youths paid for the crime – all sentenced to death.  One has been executed, one had his sentence reduced to life imprisonment and the third, Reggie Clemons, is at risk of being executed.

Jamala Rogers, Coordinator of the Justice for Reggie Campaign, Ernest Coverson, Amnesty Midwest Regional Field Organizer, and Laura Moye at the “Chain of Rocks” bridge.
Jamala Rogers, Coordinator of the Justice for Reggie Campaign, Ernest Coverson, Amnesty Midwest Regional Field Organizer, and Laura Moye at the “Chain of Rocks” bridge.

No physical evidence.  Just two (white) witnesses, one who initially confessed to the crime, the other implicated the three (black) youths in exchange for a lesser sentence.

The tragedy of Julie and Robin Kerry’s deaths was compounded by a legal process so alarmingly unfair that justice was never really served.  And even worse, Reggie Clemons could lose his life with these issues unaddressed.  You can take action to prevent this injustice right now.

Yesterday, I visited the old “Chain of Rocks” bridge on my visit to St. Louis along with my colleagues from our Midwest Regional Office.  Jamala Rogers, a community activist and Coordinator of the Justice for Reggie campaign, filled in pieces of the story and the history of the campaign she started more than a decade ago.  We met with Reggie’s mother Vera and step-father Bishop Thomas for dinner and learned more about the story and how Reggie has been doing in prison.  Vera has been visiting her son on death row almost every week these past 17 years.  She joked about how she’d worn through cars making the drive so frequently.  Despite all that she has been through, a calm resolve shines through Vera’s gentle and gracious spirit.

Reggie Clemons
Reggie Clemons

Today, we will be in front of the old courthouse where Reggie was sentenced to death in 1993.  We will join with Amnesty International members in Missouri and our coalition partners to release our new report, “USA: Model Criminal Justice? Death by Prosecutorial Misconduct and a ‘Stacked’ Jury,” about the Clemons case.  It speaks volumes about a flawed death penalty system that ought to be abolished.


At the top of the list of issues stacked against Mr. Clemons was the brazen conduct of an overzealous prosecutor, all too common in death penalty cases which are highly politicized.  The report also discusses the “stacked” jury, which both did not represent the racial composition of St. Louis and was biased toward the prosecution.  Clemons alleged police brutality during his interrogation by police, and his defense attorneys clearly did not prepare adequately for his trial.   There was no physical evidence linking Clemons to the crime, only the two witnesses, both of whom were initially charged in the crime, and at the end of the day Clemons was only convicted as an accomplice.  Yet he sits on death row.

While the number of problems in Clemons’ case may seem exceptional, these are issues that plague the entire U.S. death penalty.  It is all too clear how bias, misconduct and error riddle so many cases.  Over 70% of all cases across the country are reversed due to serious error and 138 people have been released from death rows since 1973 after having been wrongfully convicted.  Further, a handful of individuals may have been wrongfully executed, such as Cameron Willingham in Texas and Larry Griffin in Missouri.

Fortunately, the Missouri Supreme Court appointed a Special Master to investigate the case last fall.  We hope that process will bring more light to the problems we have documented and provide an avenue to correct the injustices in this case and prevent Clemons from being executed.  We will remain vigilant as that process unfolds.  We also will remain on the alert as the examination of new DNA evidence (discovered just two months ago) proceeds.  At this point, however, we believe that the state of Missouri already has ample evidence of the serious flaws in this case to, at a minimum, commute the death sentence of Mr. Clemons.

We will continue to stand with other groups, including Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a coalition to which we belong, in the on-going call for a study of the state’s death penalty and a halt to executions.  We know that the death penalty wastes huge financial resources, being more expensive than permanent imprisonment.  These funds could better serve communities if channeled into proven crime control measures and services for victims’ families.  We urge Missouri lawmakers to take a closer look at the problems with the death penalty, consider more constructive solutions to violent crime and recognize that the time has come for its abolition.

Reggie’s mother thanked us for working on her son’s case and engaging our supporters to take action on his behalf.  We hope that channeling the energies of our global membership base will help brighten the spotlight on this case so that Vera will never have to say a final goodbye to her son and justice may prevail.