Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In the wake of Reggie Clemons’ guilty plea for life without parole, former St. Louis City Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce wasted no time in issuing another of the caustic, hasty public statements she has earned a reputation for over the years. Joyce called Clemons “a monster for putting the victims’ families through this decades-long ordeal.”
What Joyce leaves out, however, is her own integral role in this decades-long ordeal.
Even the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Editorial board noted that Clemons “could have gotten life without parole 24 years ago. The death sentence accomplished nothing.”
Joyce led an office that violated prosecutorial disclosure of evidence in numerous criminal cases that sent people to prison. During Joyce’s 2000-2016 tenure, the City of St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office was ranked first out of 115 jurisdictions in the state for the most misconduct findings and reversals of convictions. In an exhaustive report released this summer, Joyce was named as one of four prosecutors who repeatedly violated their constitutional and ethical duties to such a degree that they were outliers – nationally. And much of this noteworthy conduct from Joyce’s office came out of the Clemons case.
That is not the job the public hired her to do.
Prosecutors like Joyce possess enormous discretion, and they have a duty to choose a path that spares victims and the rest of the community decades of suffering and unnecessary litigation manufactured by their offices.
The habitual reliance on misconduct and police beatings to attain a “win” further underscore the need for reforms that came in the last Circuit Attorney election and are underway in other communities tainted by prosecutorial misconduct.
With a newfound conclusion to the Clemons case, perhaps we as a community need to view Joyce’s statements and actions in a broader, systemic context: to what extent did Joyce have – and consistently fail – a responsibility to behave wisely, ethically, and lawfully? To what extent did her single-minded pursuit of the death penalty cause this case to fester and continue?
Are prosecutors who violate our civil rights and due process above the law? When do they get their justice?
In fact, it was because of repeated missteps, misstatements, and misconduct by members of Joyce’s office that the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Clemons’ conviction and death sentence in 2015. The Court found that prosecutor Nels Moss, Jr. had suppressed evidence which supported Clemons’ claim that the police had coerced his confession by violently beating him. Moss also wrote “omit” in the margins next to evidence of injuries in a draft police report. (Moss, who retired in 2001, was a runner-up in a 2016 report on America’s deadliest prosecutors. His egregious misconduct included failing to disclose exculpatory evidence in at least 26 cases – eight of these cases later had reversed convictions or mistrials.) Joyce herself also publicly misstated that her office had provided Clemons’ defense with rape kit evidence – they had not. In 2016, a circuit judge found that Joyce’s office, following her policy, willingly violated for years their disclosure obligations, including in the Clemons case.
Joyce could have offered him a plea immediately following the Missouri Supreme Court’s decision in 2015 and ended a prosecutorial magic show where “new” evidence kept trickling out of the Circuit Attorney files. Yet Joyce made the decision to retry Clemons and seek the death penalty again. She thereby initiated an additional two years of re-litigation and trauma, with the horrible details of the homicides recounted again on the front pages of local newspapers.
Facing a death sentence, a defendant will of course try to save his life. Clemons fought the long fight and now chose a guilty plea he can live with (literally), but it was Joyce who chose to continue the decades-long quest to kill Clemons, whose conviction arose from prosecutorial misconduct. By steadfastly pursuing death at every opportunity, Joyce dragged Clemons and every one of the victims’ family members through a process lengthier, more expensive, and more complex than would have come from a plea deal of life without parole.
The price has been high for the victims and the community. Ultimately, we have all paid a price for this farce: trust in the judicial system.
-Rod Chapel, Jr., President, Missouri NAACP