Pilkington reports: "Reggie Clemons knows what it's like to prepare for imminent death. In 2008, he came within 12 days of execution by lethal injection."
Reggie Clemons faces death for a crime he swears he did not commit. According to Amnesty International, he did not receive an adequate defense. (photo: Amnesty International)
Reggie Clemons: 'I know, and God Knows. I know I'm Innocent'
23 August 12
Sentenced to death in 1993 for a crime he insists he didn't commit, Reggie Clemons tells Ed Pilkington about preparing for imminent death, and why America's death penalty is 'poisonous'
eggie Clemons knows what it's like to prepare for imminent death. In 2008, he came within 12 days of execution by lethal injection. In May that year he was issued with a death warrant and for the next 18 days he sat and waited in his prison cell, a short dead-man-walking distance from the death chamber. It was, he says, "a real strange time."
"Each day was real slow. You're paying attention to each and every little detail - every crack on the floor, how your shoe strings are laying that day - because these might be the very last moments of your life."
When his mother Vera Thomas came to see him, he was forced to talk to her from behind a thick bullet-proof glass window, with his hands cuffed to his waist and his feet shackled, even though he was in the middle of a maximum security prison from which there was no chance of escape. Mother and son were put in a visitors' room that just happened to be located next to the death chamber. As Clemons looked out at his mother through the glass, he could see behind her the door through which he knew he would soon be passing.
He had plenty of time during those 18 days to think about the specifics of what would happen to him once he walked through that door and was strapped onto the gurney. "The first drug is supposed to put you to sleep," he says, referring to the beginning of the lethal injection process. "The second drug paralyses you so that you can't move, so you can't talk or speak or anything. And then the third drug is like injecting fire into your veins, because what it does is fries your nervous system. Which I imagine makes your body feel like it's on fire. But I don't know. I've never been there, and nobody has come back from that to tell us."
Twelve days before the execution, the US court of appeals granted Clemons a temporary reprieve. The death he had imagined in such close detail was on hold, for now.
Reggie Clemons is on death row at the Potosi Correctional Center, pictured, an austere low-lying complex surrounded by glistening barbed wire electrified fences deep in the countryside of Missouri. We are taken into the bowels of the institution, along echoing corridors, through remote-controlled iron doors, to a small white cell where Clemons is summoned to meet us.
Over the ensuing three hours, we discuss his version of what happened over the Mississippi river, his experience of living for almost two decades under the permanent threat of execution, and his reflections on the impact of the death penalty on American society.
Clemons was sentenced to death in 1993 for the murder of two young sisters, Julie and Robin Kerry. The women fell to their deaths off the Chain of Rocks bridge - pushed with Clemons's connivance, the prosecution said - into the brutal waters of the Mississippi on the night of the 4/5 April 1991.
Clemons will not go into great detail about the events of that night, under instruction from his lawyers. But he does confirm that he and his three co-defendants - Marlin Gray, Antonio Richardson and Daniel Winfrey - did all go onto the bridge, which at the time was fenced off and derelict, but used as a popular hangout for teenagers.
"We'd been watching a [St Louis] Blues hockey game, against Chicago I think," he recalls. After the game, they drove to the bridge and there, some time before midnight, they bumped into a group of strangers, the Kerry sisters and their cousin, Thomas Cummins.
"We came across each other, talked to each other, had a casual conversation, about the bridge, talking about a movie that had been made up there. We talked about how a lot of different people hung out up there. And the graffiti that was painted on the surface of the bridge, reflecting all the different types of people that did come up there. It's just a nice casual conversation, and then we parted ways."
Clemons says the conversation lasted about 15 minutes. "Then we left the bridge. The state says we came back. I'm saying we didn't."
He won't go further than that, saying that he is reserving his full account of what happened on the bridge that night for when he is given a chance to clear his name in a court of law.
'The rape charges were used to inflame the passions of the jury'
Though Clemons was found guilty of murdering the sisters, he was never accused of having directly pushed them into the river. No witness testified having seen him do so.
Rather, he was convicted as an accomplice. The prosecution alleged that Clemons and his three co-defendants had returned to the bridge and accosted the Kerry sisters and their cousin, robbing them and raping the women. Clemons was alleged to have thrown the sisters' clothes off the bridge, before all three victims were forced into the river (the sisters drowned while Cummins testified that he swam to the bank). Afterwards, a co-defendant claimed in incriminating testimony that Clemons had bragged to his friends: "We threw them off."
Clemons' link to the murders, according to the prosecution, was that he had committed rape and robbery and was therefore implicated. Yet rape and robbery charges were kept separate from the murder counts, and were dismissed soon after the murder trial had ended.
"The rape and robbery charges were used to inflame the passions of the jury, as they were supposed to connect me to the murder," Clemons says. "I thought they were going to take me to trial for those charges later, but they never did. I am still pushing for it, because I strongly feel that in front of a jury I would be fully acquitted."
At his murder trial, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimonies of Thomas Cummins and Daniel Winfrey, then aged 15, who was one of Clemons' three co-defendants. Both Cummins and Winfrey were white, while Clemons, Marlin Gray and Antonio Richardson were African Americans, lending a stark racial element to the proceedings.
Both Cummins and Winfrey arguably had ulterior motives to implicate Clemons - Cummins because he was himself initially accused by police of murdering his cousins, though the investigation of him was later dropped, and Winfrey because the prosecution arranged a plea bargain with him in which he would be spared the death penalty in exchange for turning star witness against his black co-defendants. He pleaded guilty, was given a 30-year sentence and was released on parole in 2007.
"I was a little angry and confused," Clemons says about Winfrey, who he had never met before the night the Kerry sisters died. "I didn't fully understand why he made the deal and turned states [witness]. I've wondered about it over the years. He was young, 15 years old. Here it is, he's facing the real serious case like this, with some strangers that he don't even know. So ..."
The other key evidence presented to the jury at the 1993 trial was Clemons's own confession to police made two days after the Kerry sisters went missing. In it, Clemons admitted to raping one of the sisters, though not to murdering them.
Twenty years later, Clemons still insists, as he told internal affairs investigators 48 hours after he made the confession, that it was beaten out of him. He says: "I remember police mainly beating me in the chest. While they were beating me, they were telling me what they wanted to admit to. One of their punches skipped off my shoulder and caught me in my cheek, cut me right in front of my eye. Then another punch caused my lip to start bleeding."
Clemons says that he agreed to make a statement just to "get my bearings a little bit. I needed a break from this beating before these people kill me, so I can think a little bit."
He began to give a statement, Clemons says, along the lines dictated by the detectives, but in the middle of it he blurted out that he was being assaulted. They immediately stopped the tape and discarded it. "They came back about five minutes later, and started beating on me some more. So I made a second tape. I barely even remember it. It's like, hazy, the memory of it."
The second tape was his confession to rape, which was crucial in putting him on death row.
The account that Clemons gave the Guardian is the same as what he told officers of the St Louis police internal affairs unit when he complained of being beaten up two days after his initial interview, and echoes too what his lawyers said in appeal documents lodged with the Missouri supreme court. Yet why did he make that tape when it in effect put the seal on his own death sentence?
"If you believe that someone is willing to beat you to death, while they're beating you they can just about get you to admit to anything."
In addition to the police who he alleges attacked him, Clemons is very critical of other aspects of the criminal justice system. He accuses his own lawyers at the time of the trial of acting against his interests - the two lead attorneys were going through a divorce at the time of his trial and he believes they were ill-prepared to defend him.
A separate team of defence lawyers who represented Clemons in his appeal for clemency at the time of his 2009 scheduled execution alleged in court papers that his trial attorneys had "failed him at every stage of his representation".
All in all, Clemons says, "the pack was stacked against me. I knew I was going to get the death sentence, even before the trial started. I had already been tried and convicted in the media."
In separate trials, Marlin Gray and Antonio Richardson were also put on death row. Richardson later had his conviction commuted to life imprisonment, but Gray was executed by lethal injection in October 2005.
Clemons says Gray's death hit him hard. "He clearly didn't have any blood on his hands, either. No one said he pushed the two young women into the water. So I felt, well, they've executed him, they definitely can't not execute me. It created a feeling of inevitability. It's only by mercy of God that I feel I'm here still breathing today."
Before he died, Gray seemed to Clemons to have lost all hope. "He kind of took the attitude of 'whatever.' At one point he said: 'I can't believe you still think that people are going to listen.' But I said, that don't mean I got to quit talking, trying to explain, and explain, and explain."
In doing all that explaining, over so many years, Clemons has thought a lot about the death penalty and its impact on him. "It's like somebody pointing a gun to your head, every day, and telling you that I'm going to kill you some day, I just haven't decided when."
'The death penalty in America is poisonous'
Now aged 40, he's lost count of the number of his fellow death row inmates who have been taken away, never to return. "I'm too young to know as many dead people as I do," he says.
But he believes he's come to terms with the surreal character of life on death row. "This might sound crazy to some people, but I'm already free on the inside. I know I don't belong in here, and I'm free to think for myself. If my mind and spirit is free, my body is soon to follow."
He's also had time to think about the death penalty's impact on America in a wider sense. Before his arrest, he was an advocate of capital punishment. Now he's come to the conclusion that the death penalty has a pervasive and negative effect that permeates itself throughout society.
"The death penalty in America is poisonous to the social consciousness. It makes people consider death as a solution. Murder as a solution.
"The death penalty desensitizes people to the human aspect of crime and punishment. You forget about the human being. You have to dehumanise somebody in order to kill them. And it's not a penalty at all. We are all going to die some day. So who are you punishing? Me or my family?"
He says his heart goes out to the family of Julie and Robin Kerry. "I can't imagine what they're going through. I wish I could find a way to take their pain away, but that's not possible. You can't bring people back."
Clemons says he can't express remorse, "because remorse requires that you're guilty of something." But what about the two women who died on the bridge?
"I think about them a lot," Clemons says. "It's sad that they're not here to see the first black president, because from what I've read about them, that's something that they would definitely want to see. I've read that they were against the death penalty, and they would be fighting against a lot of wrongs that's going on in the world."
To hear a man on death row for double murder saying that he thinks a lot about his alleged victims will be offensive to people sceptical of Clemons's protestations of innocence. It may also be difficult to hear for the family of the Kerry sisters, who have largely avoided media contact and are disdainful towards what one family member has called the "Reggie Clemons circus".
No matter what comes out of the September hearings into his case, there will always be those who see Reggie Clemons as a cold-hearted killer deserving of the ultimate punishment. So how does he deal with the knowledge that a perception of guilt will hang over him always?
"Whatever conclusion a person reaches, that is their own choice. I don't have any control over that, and I've learned not to give a lot away to what somebody thinks about me.
"Not because I'm arrogant or because I'm unconcerned about other people's opinions. But because I know, and God knows. I know I'm not a rapist. I know I'm not a murderer or a killer. I know that I didn't do any of these things. I know I'm innocent."
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