The Missouri Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on November 24 to vacate the conviction and death sentence of Reginald (Reggie) Clemons (pictured), who has been on death row for 22 years for the interracial rape and murder of two sisters. The court said that Clemons did not receive a fair trial because of prosecutorial misconduct. In particular, the court was troubled by what it concluded was a deliberate failure by prosecutors to provide Clemons’ defense with evidence that he had been beaten to elicit a confession.
“The record includes substantial, credible evidence that Mr Clemons’ confession was coerced by physical abuse inflicted by the police that would require that his confession be suppressed,” Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge wrote.
The court said that the prosecution’s misconduct was even more prejudicial in this case because, after withholding evidence of the beating by police, it then filed a motion to bar the defense from arguing that Clemons confession had been coerced, successfully asserting that the evidence at trial did not support an inference that police had beaten Clemons. The court’s decision relied heavily on the findings of a Special Master who reviewed the case in 2013. Clemons also raised the issue of his sentence being disproportionate to those of the other men involved in the crime. Of the four defendants in the case, Clemons and two other black men received death sentences, while the one white defendant is now out on parole. The court declined to address the issue of proportionality because the other evidence was sufficient to overturn Clemons’ conviction.
A 2012 report by The Guardian identified 21 discrepancies in the prosecution’s case against Clemons, including:
that the prosecution never disclosed the existence of a rape kit that could have identified the perpetrator and presented no evidence from the rape kit at trial
presented testimony in a co-defendant’s trial that another person actually pushed the sisters off a bridge into the Mississippi River
that prosecutors discriminatorily exercised their discretionary strikes to prevent seven black jurors from sitting on the case.
The state of Missouri has 60 days from the ruling to decide whether to retry Clemons.