Missouri man's murder convictions in sisters' deaths tossed

AP News
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Posted: Nov 24, 2015 5:48 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) — The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the first-degree murder convictions and the death sentence for one of four men convicted of raping two sisters and throwing them to their death from an abandoned Mississippi River bridge in St. Louis 24 years ago.

The 4-3 ruling sends Reginald Clemons' case back to circuit court and gives the state 60 days to either retry Clemons or allow the charges to be dismissed. The Supreme Court also declined to overturn a ruling by a retired judge it appointed to review the case who ruled that prosecutors suppressed evidence that detectives beat Clemons into confessing.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce and a spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster both said they were determining what to do next. The court noted that Clemons also is serving a 15-year sentence in a separate case, after pleading guilty in 2007 to an act of prison violence against a Missouri Department of Corrections employee, and will therefore remain in prison for now.

Clemons' attorney, Joshua A. Levine, said he was thrilled by the ruling.

"Today the Missouri Supreme Court upheld Mr. Clemons' constitutional right to a fair trial, which is all he's sought from the beginning," said Levine, who is based in New York. He said he had not yet talked to Clemons about the ruling.

Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, were visiting the abandoned Chain of Rocks bridge with a male cousin late one night in 1991, when they encountered Clemons, who was 19 at the time, along with his cousin, Antonio Richardson, and two friends, Marlin Gray and Daniel Winfrey.

Prosecutors alleged that the sisters were raped and shoved off the bridge into the river, and that their cousin, Thomas Cummins, was forced to jump off. Cummins survived and cooperated with prosecutors.

Winfrey received a 30-year sentence in exchange for his cooperation and has since been paroled. Gray was executed in 2005. Richardson was sentenced to death but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison without parole.

Clemons, who is now 44, was less than two weeks away from execution in June 2009 when a federal appeals court granted a stay while the courts addressed concerns about the constitutionality of lethal injection.

The Missouri Supreme Court later appointed Michael Manners, a retired judge, as a "special master" to review the case and issue a report to the court. During a hearing with Manners in 2012, Clemons invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent more than 30 times.

Manners, in his report, said he found no direct evidence that Clemons didn't participate in the killings. But he also ruled that the procedural errors, including prosecutors withholding evidence, were not the harmless mistakes the state claimed them to be.

The state appealed, and the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments in February 2014. Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke said at the time there was "strong evidence about the events of the murder that evening."