Reggie Clemons: Death Row Inmate Getting Another Chance

Reggie Clemons

Will Missouri execute Reggie Clemons despite so many doubts?

Reggie Clemons has been on Missouri’s death row for about 20 years, and as the Sept. 17 date for his hearing with a Special Master approaches, more and more attention is being focused on his case.

Today, The Guardian launched a multimedia examination of the case, including an introductory overview piece, the following video, and a moving sidebar about the Julie and Robin Kerry, the two sisters who lost their lives plunging from the Chain of Rocks Bridge on April 5, 1991.

Paying Respect to the Kerry Sisters

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

The Old Chain of Rocks Bridge

I have never been numb to the loss of human life in murder cases, though my work to end the death penalty has meant that I have spent most of my time trying to prevent the executions of those who are convicted of murder.  The story of the 1991 “Chain of Rocks Murder Case,” as it is known in St. Louis, is especially poignant to me not just because I am working to stop the execution of Reggie Clemons—a man convicted as an accomplice to the murders and given the death penalty—but because I also have much in common with the two young women who perished.

I am not a family member of a murder victim, and I have no real connection to Julie and Robin Kerry, the women who died twenty-one years ago.  So I am grateful to Jeanine Cummins, one of their cousins, for having written about Julie and Robin Kerry, and the terrible journey their family experienced.  Her writing has helped me build a larger picture of the meaning of this case and the people it has impacted. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Visiting Reggie Clemons on Missouri's Death Row

Reggie Clemons, U.S. Death Penalty, death row, capital punishment, death penalty abolition

Vera Clemons, Reggie Clemons' mother, and AI activist Meredith outside of Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri

On a recent Friday morning, I paid a visit to Reggie Clemons. I wanted to learn who this convicted accomplice to a double murder, condemned prisoner and human being is. I made the journey to Potosi Correctional Center with Vera, Reggie’s mother, and Meredith, a St. Louis Amnesty leader.

Outside a large concrete fortress in the middle of nowhere, prison workers stood taking a smoke break as we pulled into the parking lot. Walking toward the entrance, we passed the beginning of a long fence with endless loops of razor wire from the ground up, electrified for good measure. I stopped at the electrocution warning sign on the fence and took some moments to prepare myself for the intense, regimented environment of every death row.


Absolute Power Corrupts, Human Rights Protect

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  That’s what Lord Acton, an English baron and historian, said back in the 19th century.  A century earlier, and on this side of the pond, Thomas Paine famously wrote:  “An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws.”

reggie clemmons

Reggie Clemons

One of the most absolute powers the state can have is the power to kill its prisoners.  There are two death penalty cases featured in this years’ Write for Rights that illustrate how enthusiasm for this ultimate punishment can corrupt the application of otherwise good laws.

Murder is a terrible crime, and making it illegal is a good law.  But in the cases of Reggie Clemons in Missouri, and Fatima Hussein Badi in Yemen, police brutality during the investigations, and over-aggressive prosecutions and inadequate defense during court proceedings have thoroughly derailed any legitimate quest of justice.


All Executions Are Wrong

The morning after Troy Davis was executed, the state of Georgia set another execution date.  Marcus Ray Johnson is slated to be put to death on October 5.  The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles should hear from us (fax: 404-651-6670;  email: [email protected]) about this case too, because all executions are wrong.

Even if there are no doubts about guilt (as there was in the case with Troy Davis, and as there is in the case with Reggie Clemons), even if there are no horrifying mitigating circumstances (like the ones that led Ohio’s Governor John Kacich to commute another death sentence), and even if the crime is particularly heinous (as was the case with the execution last week of Lawrence Brewer in Texas) the deliberate putting to death of a human being is not justice and is a fundamental violation of basic human rights.


Reggie Clemons Needs More Letters!

This post is part of our Write for Rights series

Over 3,000 Belgian citizens have handwritten and mailed in letters appealing for at least a commutation in the death sentence of Reggie Clemons, an American who was sentenced to death in St. Louis, Missouri as an accomplice in a 1991 murder. Can YOU help that number grow even bigger, and prevent the execution of a man who has maintained his innocence for almost 20 years?

As part of this year’s Write-a-thon, Amnesty International have another chance to write for (and to) Reggie Clemons. His case illustrates many of the flaws that plague the Missouri capital punishment system—there was no physical evidence, and there were only two witnesses to the crime, both of whom offered self-serving testimony. Other disturbing factors include alleged police brutality, possible racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct, and (as seemingly always in death penalty cases) inadequate legal representation.  You can check out the Justice for Reggie campaign or our Reggie Clemons page for more information, including our May 2010 report.

The Governor of Missouri needs to know that executing Reggie Clemons would be a grave violation of human rights, and Reggie needs to know that he has our support as he continues to pursue justice in his case.

Reggie’s is one of 12 cases that need attention. You can help defend human rights in all these cases this December by signing up for the Write-a-thon. One letter can make a difference. With hundreds, or thousands of letters, we can make an even greater impact. Please take part in the Write-a-thon, and encourage others to do so as well.

10 Reasons to Abolish the Death Penalty

This blog post is brought to you by the number 10.  It was after 10 pm last night when Georgia put Brandon Rhode to death, less than a week after rushing madly to save his life after his failed suicide attempt.

October 10th, 2010 (10-10-10) will be World Day Against the Death Penalty, and the focus this year is on the USA.  There has never been a more important or better time to get involved in ending capital punishment in the USA, and here are 10 reasons why:

1) The death penalty is absurd and cruel.  The ridiculous spectacle of putting a man to death just days after saving his life, is a perfect illustration of that.

2) The death penalty is degrading.  It turns states into prescription drug abusers, killing prisoners with drugs like sodium thiopental that manufacturers are on record as stating should only be used to healing purposes.

3) High profile cases, often with racial undertones, create political pressures that can lead to police and prosecutor misconduct.  Reggie Clemons was convicted as an accomplice in the murder of two white women in St. Louis.  Four federal judges have agreed that the prosecutor’s conduct was “abusive and boorish,” and Clemons alleges police brutality during his questioning. Witnesses attest to Clemons’ face being swollen after his interrogation.

4) It is not limited to the “worst of the worst”.  A recent example: the execution of Teresa Lewis in Virginia on September 23; she was put to death as the “mastermind” of a crime despite her 72 IQ, and despite the fact that the men who actually carried out the crime did not get the death penalty.

5) The death penalty is not limited to cases where there is no doubt about guilt.  Convicted by flimsy witness testimony, and unable to exonerate himself with those same witnesses, Troy Davis remains on death row despite serious doubts about his guilt.  His birthday is on October 9!

6) The times are changing.  In Ohio, Governor Ted Strickland granted clemency in the case of Kevin Keith, despite his belief that Keith was probably guilty, because some doubt remained.

7) In Texas, a hearing on whether Cameron Todd Willingham was wrongfully executed will take place October 6-7.  Skepticism about the application of the death penalty continues to build in the Lone Star State.

8) Death sentences continue to drop.  Last year barely over 100 were sentenced to death , compared to an average of close to 300 in the 1990s.

9) One-by-one, states are abandoning capital punishment, particularly in odd numbered years. (New Jersey in 2007, New Mexico in 2009).  In the coming year (2011), many more states will have serious debates and possibly votes on abolition

10) There is so much that can be done for World Day Against the Death Penalty, from taking action on specific cases, to joining your local state-based coalition’s efforts to abolish the death penalty.

The death penalty abolition movement is growing, and some progress is being made, but there is a lot of work yet to be done.  This World Day is the perfect time to get started.

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

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.