JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (CN) - The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out the double-murder conviction of a man who faced the death penalty in the killing of two sisters in 1991.
In a 4-3, 118-page decision, the state's high court sent Reginald Clemons' case back to the state court.
Clemons was one of four men convicted of raping and killing Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19. The Kerrys took their cousin, Thomas Cummins, then 19, to the old unused Chain of Rocks Bridge spanning the Mississippi River between Missouri and Illinois to show him a poem they had written there.
On the bridge they encountered a group of men that allegedly included Clemons, who raped the sisters and forced them and Cummins off the bridge. Only Cummins survived the plunge into the river.
The majority opinion cited the finding of Michael Manner, a retired judge appointed by the court to review the case, who concluded that prosecutors wrongly suppressed evidence and that detectives beat Clemons in order to coerce a confession out of him.
"Here, the fact that the trial court denied Mr. Clemons' claim in his motion to suppress that his confession was physically coerced and allowed into evidence Mr. Clemons' confession without having the benefit of [probation officer] Mr. [Warren] Weeks' testimony substantially supports the master's finding that Mr. Clemons was not given a 'fair trial,'" Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge wrote. "This is particularly true in light of the fact the trial court's primary basis for not suppressing Mr. Clemons' confession was because Mr. Clemons could not prove at whose hands and when he suffered his injury."
Justices Laura Denvir Stith, Richard B. Teitelman and Special Judge Lisa White Hardwick made up the majority opinion. But Justices Paul C. Wilson, Zel M. Fischer and Mary R. Russell dissented, concluding there was no failure to produce evidence by the state.
"Free to tell anyone what he remembered, Weeks never contacted Clemons' counsel, and they never contacted him," Wilson wrote in the 66-page dissent. "Clemons, of course, knows best who he met with in the hours and days following the interrogation, particularly those who volunteered remarks about an apparent injury to Clemons' face. Yet defense counsel made no effort to depose Weeks prior to Clemons' suppression hearing and trial, even though the state disclosed him as a potential witness and disclosed that he had been working at PTR in the early morning of April 8 when Clemons was booked."
Prosecutors have 60 days to retry the case.
In a statement emailed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said her staff would review the decision.
"As this crime occurred almost 25 years ago, we will need to review the state's evidence, determine the availability of witnesses and reporting officers in the case, and discuss our options with the victims' family," Joyce said. "Once we have completed this process, we will then determine the appropriate course of action within the allotted period of time."
She added, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the friends and family of Julie and Robin Kerry."
A representative for Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster told the Post-Dispatch that the office is still reviewing the decision.
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