An attorney for a Missouri man who has been on death row for two decades asked the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to overturn his conviction, asserting that prosecutors suppressed evidence indicating he may have been beaten into confessing.
Reginald Clemons is one of four people who were convicted or pleaded guilty to the 1991 deaths of sisters Julie and Robin Kerry, who prosecutors say were shoved off a St. Louis bridge into the Mississippi River after being raped.
Clemons was scheduled to die by lethal injection in June 2009. But a federal appeals court blocked the execution and the state Supreme Court then appointed a special judge to investigate Clemons' claims that he was wrongly convicted.
After a lengthy legal process, Judge Michael Manners issued a report last year concluding that prosecutors suppressed evidence that police may have beaten Clemons while questioning him.
Manners noted former bail investigator Warren Weeks came forward in 2012 to say he had observed a bump the size of a golf ball or baseball on Clemons' cheek a few hours after his police interview. Weeks had recorded that on a form at the time, but Manners said it was crossed out by someone on behalf of the state's prosecution.
Manners wrote in his report that, had Weeks' testimony been provided to Clemons' attorneys, it "may have resulted" in a trial court ruling that Clemons' confession could not be used at his trial.
The arguments before the Supreme Court on Tuesday focused on whether that would have created "a reasonable probability" that Clemons would not have been convicted.
Clemons' attorney, Joshua Levine of New York, argued that a new trial was necessary because the confession was a critical piece of evidence.
"It's a somewhat offensive proposition, the notion that a physically coerced confession that is the centerpiece of the state's case could somehow not be something that results in a new trial for a defendant," Levine said told the Supreme Court. "Give Mr. Clemons what he's been looking for all these years, which is just a fair trial."
Clemons, who is now 43, was 19 at the time of the crimes. His parents and a busload of supporters traveled from the St. Louis area to watch Tuesday's Supreme Court arguments. Afterward, they expressed hope that his conviction would be overturned.
"The whole trial was based on a lie, and based on a false confession," said Maxine Johnson, who described herself as a "prayer warrior" for Clemons.
Assistant Attorney General Stephen Hawke hinged his argument against a re-trial on the technical wording of Manners' report. He said the conclusion that Weeks' testimony "may have" otherwise led a judge to block the use of Clemons' confession does not mean there was a "reasonable probability" that the outcome of the trial would have been different.
"There was strong evidence about the events of the murder that evening," Hawke said.
In his report, Manners said he found no direct evidence that Clemons didn't participate in the killings.
The Kerry sisters, who were ages 19 and 20, had gone with a cousin, Thomas Cummins, to the Chain of Rocks bridge late at night. While there, they encountered Clemons, who had come to the bridge with his cousin Antonio Richardson, and two other friends, Marlin Gray and Daniel Winfrey.
Prosecutors say the sisters were raped and shoved off the bridge into the river and Cummins was then forced to jump off. Cummins survived.
Winfrey, who testified on behalf of the prosecution, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He has since been released on parole. The other three all were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Gray was executed in 2005.
Richardson was re-sentenced to life in prison by the state Supreme Court in 2003 because his death sentence had been determined by a judge not a jury. Richardson, who was 16 at the time of the crimes, also would have been affected by a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that abolished capital punishment for juveniles.