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A Shot at Justice: The Fight to Save Death Row Inmate Reggie Clemons

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If things had gone as scheduled today, Reginald Clemons, 37, would have died this morning by lethal injection. But on June 5, a federal appeals court indefinitely postponed his execution. Clemons has been on and off of death row since 1993, sentenced for the murders of sisters Julie and Robin Kerry, two young White woman who were mysteriously pushed off the old Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, and drowned in the Mississippi River, 80 feet below.

Clemons was 19 years old the night he and three friends were hanging out at the bridge where they encountered the Kerry sisters and their cousin Tom Cummins. Until this day, Clemons believes it was Cummins who killed the Kerry sisters. Cummins at first told the police conflicting stories—including that he was forced by the group to jump off the bridge. Yet he was found dry from the waist up and reports indicate that he would never have survived the fall. He was arrested and charged with the murders, until the police found a flashlight at the scene that belonged to one of the men in Reginald Clemons's group. As a result, Cummins was later released.

The events that happened next have led to Clemons spending the last 16 years in jail. He contends that he was coerced into giving a false statement where he admits to raping the women but not pushing them off the bridge. He says it was made under duress after being interrogated and beaten for hours by the police—very believable after autopsy reports allegedly indicate that neither woman had been raped. His lawyers at one point stopped making objections in his case, which has since hampered his chance for appeals. While St. Louis is considered a predominantly Black city, only two of the 12 jurors were African-American. The most egregious aspect is that the prosecution has never presented physical evidence (DNA, fingerprints, hair or fiber samples) linking Clemons to the crime.

The case has received the attention of celebrities like Danny Glover and advocacy groups including the ACLU and NAACP. ESSENCE.com spoke with Reverend Elston K. McCowan, executive board member of the St. Louis NAACP chapter and pastor of Star Grace Missionary Baptist Church about their request to meet with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon and Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster in an effort to review this case, give Clemons a new trial and ultimately save his life for good.

ESSENCE.COM: What is the NAACP doing to help Reginald Clemons?
REVEREND ELSTON K. McCOWAN: We're trying to build awareness throughout the state and country about the injustice that Reggie Clemons and his family is experiencing as well as the Kerry family. I'm sure they would want to know why their daughters were killed. We have petition drives and are constantly telling folks to call the governor and attorney general and demand that this case get a second look.   

ESSENCE.COM: What do you believe happened to Reggie?
REVEREND McCOWAN: He was railroaded. There was never any proof of rape, and yet when you it involves African-American men and White women, that automatically puts it into another realm in people's psyche. We talk about how we shouldn't torture people but police brutality is another form of that. He was even sent to the hospital because he had wounds that were consistent with a beating. He had incompetent legal defense and a prosecutor who eliminated many African-Americans from the jury. Plus, no one was ever charged with the killing. Everyone was charged and convicted as an accessory which is unusual for a crime like this. All these things should allow him to get another trial.

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ESSENCE.COM: Reggie was supposed to die today but received a stay in his execution. What happened?
REVEREND McCOWAN: His current appeal was based on the inhumanity of lethal injection because they found that incompetent people were administering the injection and causing prisoners cruel and unusual punishment because they did such a sloppy job. But they can say any day that they've resolved all the issues and schedule another day for his execution.

ESSENCE.COM: What do you want from Governor Nixon and Attorney General Koster?
REVEREND McCOWAN: We've asked the attorney general to look into the case when he was running for office and he assured us that he would take a second look. Governor Nixon benefitted largely from the support of African-American voters and so we're asking in the sake of fairness to give Reggie clemency and take him off of death row. Really what we want is another trial but if nothing else we want his sentence reduced to life in prison which will give us more time to fight for a new trial.    
 
ESSENCE.COM: How is Reggie feeling at this point?
REVEREND McCOWAN: Life is irreversible. Once you find out you were wrong, you can't give a person their life back. We're going to continue to bring about public awareness about this case. I'm sure Reggie knows that our efforts are bearing fruit and that the word is getting out and he's not somebody that folks have forgotten. If you listen to his statements, you can tell he is a man of faith and we're all going to have to have faith that a higher power will intervene on his behalf and keep him alive.

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