One of the most amazing facets of the new evidentiary hearing granted to Missouri death row inmate Reginald Clemons was the transformation of Thomas Cummins – the prosecution’s star witness in Clemons’ 1993 jury trial – into a key witness for Clemons himself. The person whose testimony played perhaps the largest role in getting Clemons the death penalty is now considered a friendly witness whose testimony could help get the condemned man off death row.
In 1993 Cummins testified in three separate trial that Clemons and his codefendants Marlin Gray and Antonio Richardson participated in a group rape of Cummins’ cousins Robin Kerry and Julie Kerry, on April 4, 1991 that ended when they were pushed to their deaths from the Chain of Rocks Bridge. Cummins testified that the youngest of the three (Richardson) pushed the girls off the bridge, but Clemons and Gray also were tried and convicted of first-degree murder as accomplices. All three were sentenced to death.
Gray was executed in 2005. Richardson’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison without possibility of parole because he was a juvenile sentenced to death by a judge, not a jury. Clemons’ execution date had been set by the Missouri Supreme Court in 2009 just weeks before the court – to the amazement of many – appointed Judge Michael Manners as Special Master to provide new findings in the case.
The jump that wasn’t
For those familiar with the case who are sympathetic to Clemons – who in 1991 confessed to raping one of the girls, but denied killing either, and recanted his confession two days later, claiming it was coerced and scripted – Cummins is a major figure. Many hoped to see him take the stand again in a St. Louis courtroom to answer questions about his trial testimony in 1993 and his own confession to pushing one and possibly both of the girls off the bridge. Cummins also recanted his confession, claiming it was coerced and scripted by police with details that match Clemons’ statement about his interrogation to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s Internal Affairs investigator.
According to the police report on Cummins, he described the group rape scenario when he was first interviewed. But he was taken in for questioning as a suspect, rather than a witness, because he obviously was lying about one part of his story. Cummins claimed that he was held down while his cousins were raped and murdered, and then he jumped 90 feet from the bridge into the Mississippi River when ordered to. But Cummins’ hair was clean, dry and even parted when first interviewed at the crime scene, which would not be the case had he jumped off the bridge. He also was not injured. Crime scene investigators judged that Cummins would be badly injured if not killed after jumping 90 feet from the bridge to the river, and if he reached the bank of river it would have been further downstream and most likely on the Illinois side. Cummins was picked up on the Missouri side of the river, not far from the bridge.
So the police knew Cummins was lying about jumping off the bridge and apparently wondered what else he was lying about. They took him to police headquarters where, Cummins has repeatedly testified, they beat him into a confession and then wrote down what he should say when recorded on the audiotape.
Father disbelieves son
Unlike Clemons – who after he was taken in for questioning next saw his mother at his arraignment for first-degree murder – Cummins saw his father, Gene Cummins, before the police were finished with him. According to the police report, Cummins’ own father also “was having a hard time believing his son’s story” about jumping off the bridge. Not only the cops and his father, but also a polygraph test judged Cummins to be “deceptive.”
“Cummins stated he was afraid of that,” the police reported of Gene Cummins, “adding that when Thomas was an adolescent he would concoct elaborate stories to justify his shortcomings in school performance.”
Unlike Clemons, Thomas Cummins then benefitted from his father’s coaching about the police interrogation, as described in the police report. When Cummins runs through the group rape story again, his father stops him when he says he jumped off the bridge. According to the police report, his father “advised him that his statement regarding jumping from the bridge was hard to believe as if he had jumped from that height, he would have been injured.”
Cummins then changed his story and said he ran from the bridge and jumped into the river and swam in, trying to save his cousins before swimming back to shore. His father also found that story unbelievable, according to the police report, so Cummins changed it again, claiming he jumped into the river but didn’t see the girls so he got back out and went for help.
After this, the police report stated, Cummins’ father left the interview room and Cummins was interrogated alone by Lieutenant Steven Jacobsmeyer and Detective Chris Pappas, who also interrogated Clemons. Cummins repeatedly has testified that Jacobsmeyer was one of the cops who beat him into confessing. It is his confession during this part of the police report that prosecutor Nels Moss – who was not present for the interrogation – edited by hand, suggesting changes to the police report that were in fact made by police. Moss never produced his hand-marked copy of the police report to Clemons’ jury trial team in 1993, as ordered. The final police report, edited by the prosecutor, was what the jury that convicted Clemons heard and read at trial.
Even in the final police report, Cummins’ own father continues to disbelieve that his son jumped off the bridge, as his son first claimed in the group rape scenario. The police reported of Gene Cummins, “He made a circular motion with his right index finger at the right side of his head and said, ‘That thing he (Thomas) said about jumping off of that bridge; check into it. That can’t be right.’”
‘Crazy’ story accepted as fact
This was Thomas Cummins’ own father speaking to police soon after the crimes were committed. Cummins’ own father used a hand gesture to claim his son was crazy rather than accept as fact that he had been forced to jump off the bridge. Yet Nels Moss presented precisely this crazy account as factual and even spiced up this account melodramatically in closing statements at Clemons’ jury trial, fabricating details where Cummins clutches at his cousins’ bodies, trying to save them in the raging river. The last time the Missouri Supreme Court denied a Clemons appeal, it restated these counterfactual, indeed crazy, claims as fact.
It is equally amazing that event after this new evidentiary hearing in 2012, the crazy story that Cummins’ own father didn’t believe still stands in the trial record as uncontested fact. Why? Because Clemons’ trial counsel is now using Cummins’ claim that police coerced and scripted his confession as supporting evidence for Clemons’ claim that his confession was involuntary and should not have been admitted in court. Clemons’ counsel also is presenting as new evidence meriting a new trial the fact that Cummins was paid $150,000 to settle his claim of police brutality, which happened after Clemons was convicted and sentenced to death.
So just like Nels Moss needed for Cummins to be a reliable and credible witness in 1993, Clemons’ current legal team needs for Cummins to be a reliable and credible witness in 2012. If Cummins can make up a story about jumping off a bridge, and change the story at least twice, then he can make up a story about getting beaten by police into making a confession. On that point, Clemons’ counsel now needs for Cummins to be credible. So we may never have an answer to the crime scene cops’ original question: If Thomas Cummins is lying about jumping off the bridge, what else is he lying about?
However, this evidentiary hearing did much to damage the belief held by many Clemons’ supporters that Cummins made up the whole group rape scenario like the “elaborate stories” his dad said he concocted as a schoolboy. New DNA analysis of a condom, boxer shorts and pants warn by Gray the night of the crime does not provide a direct DNA match for Clemons, but it does support Cummins’ claim that his cousins endured a group rape that night. Clemons’ DNA profile can not be ruled out of the three men whose DNA was found on Gray’s condom, though Cummins cam be ruled out.
Also, Clemons himself passed up his opportunity on the witness stand to deny that a group rape occurred that night in which he participated. He denied killing either girl or being an accomplice to their premeditated murder, but he declined to answer 29 questions about the rapes and murders on the ground that his answer could incriminate him. If Thomas Cummins pushed his cousins off the bridge, as he confessed in 1991, and there was no group rape, then Clemons would have no reason to plead the 5th to 29 questions about a group rape that ended in murder.