The new evidentiary hearing in the Reginald Clemons case ordered by the Missouri Supreme Court concluded last Thursday. It was a remarkable, but sobering, few days in court for those who have wrestled with this troubling case for many years. The same court that had ordered an execution date for Clemons only weeks before in 2009 suddenly opened his case to new evidence by appointing a Special Master, Judge Michael Manners, to gather new evidence. More than three years later, Clemons’ counsel from New York and a trial team from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office presented Manners with new evidence, alongside an intensely distilled version of the original trial record brought back to life as principals from the 1993 jury trial resurfaced from history to take the witness stand again. Clemons himself took the stand for the first time.
Judge Manners’ courtroom – for a hearing of the Missouri Supreme Court adjourned in St. Louis Circuit Court – was a far cry from the race-baiting circus trials dominated by prosecutor Nels Moss in 1993. In contrast, the state’s main litigator in the new hearing, Susan Boresi, was gentle with Moss when Clemons’ lead counsel Josh Levine called the old trickster to the stand and grilled him, as he deserved, but the state’s trial team conducted their case against Clemons with dignity, letting their evidence speak for itself.
Clemons’ 1993 trial attorney was overruled so consistently by Judge Edward Peek that he (unwisely for his client) began to offer fewer and fewer objections, leaving Clemons far fewer appellate options than Moss’ outrageous behavior in court should have afforded. Manners, on the other hand, always searched out both sides when considering objections. If he showed any favoritism at any time, it was toward Clemons when he gave the death row inmate a total of 90 minutes to reconsider his decision to plead the 5th Amendment on nearly 30 questions concerning the crimes now that he finally had his chance to assert his innocence.
We sincerely regret that Virginia Kerry, the mother of these promising young women whose lives were wasted, was forced to sit again through horrific testimony after all these years and see displayed the physical evidence from the crimes. But the fault for this belongs to Moss and the St. Louis police investigators who – the evidence suggests – coerced very different confessions from a series of young men and then kept only the confessions they wanted. Nothing is more vile than rape and murder, but our system for investigating and prosecuting these detestable crimes must be constitutional and beyond reproach, especially when the state seeks the death penalty.
Judge Manners adjourned the hearing last week, but our detailed coverage of this extraordinary evidentiary hearing will continue for several more weeks. As much as anyone, we clamored for Clemons to have his day in court, so we owe it to the community – and the state – to report what turned out to be his three days in court with fair and accurate detail. And we thank the Missouri Supreme Court and Judge Manners for providing – in this instance – an historic opportunity to review and attempt to correct the public record on a case that has haunted this community for many years.