Sunday, May 31, 2009

Open Letter to Gov. Jay Nixon: "I Don't Want to Kill Anymore"

To the Attention of:
Gov. Jeremiah W. (Jay) Nixon
201 W. Capital Avenue
Jefferson City, MO 65101

Dear Gov. Nixon: Soon, if not already, your office will be inundated with letters from Missourians asking that you spare the life of death row inmate Reginald Clemons. My letter is included.

Reggie, as you know, was one of four young men charged and convicted of raping and pushing sisters Julie and Robin Kerry off the Chain of Rocks Bridge in 1991.

After nearly four years without an execution, the state has begun killing again. We executed Dennis Skillicorn, 49, on May 20. I say "we" because the actions of the state are done in our name.

There are many of us, however, who can't abide murder in our name. Because the Missouri Supreme Court recently denied Reggie's request for a stay of execution, we turn to you, Governor, our last hope.

There's no doubt that Skillicorn murdered. In 1994, he killed an innocent man, a good samaritan no less, Richard Drummond, a man who stopped to help Skillicorn and his companions after their car stalled. Although his family and supporters swore Skillicorn had changed in prison and was known as a "role model" to other prisoners, you denied his clemency, noting that Skillicorn had killed before (and after) Drummond's death.

Without your stay, we citizens were forced to murder a murderer - not at the spur of the moment, but through a planned, deliberate, state-sanctioned action.

I argue that murder is murder. It is not justice.

That's why I joined others who wrote to you, our governor, asking for clemency in Reginald Clemons' case.

This blog addition serves to reach out to you further, Jay - not Gov. Nixon, just Jay, the son of a DeSoto, MO teacher, mayor and police judge, a former small town lawyer, a husband, father of two sons and a dedicated member of First United Methodist Church in Jefferson City.

This is a special plea to Jay, a man whose bio boasts of a willingness to restore "integrity," address "corruption," and fight "the toughest fights," and win.

Before Nixon, the governor, makes his decision, I'm hoping Jay, the small town lawyer, will thoroughly examine Reggie's case, dig deep, ask hard question and have the courage to reject the mob-like mentality of vengeance and revenge and say, "No, not this time!"

A Matter of Justice?

The tragic case of the Kerry Sisters has been well-documented by national and local media. If you need to refresh your memory, Gov. Nixon, a detailed analysis of the case and the courts' decisions can be found here.

We covered the Chain of Rocks Bridge case extensively in my now defunct publication, Take Five Magazine. I also wrote about the unsettling facts of the arrests and trials when I worked as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The case is riddled with reasonable doubt, charges of police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct and racial bias.

The Kerry sisters were white. Three of the four suspects eventually arrested and convicted for the crime were African-Americans.

Reggie and two others, Antonio Richardson and Marlin A. Gray, received death sentences. The lone white defendant, Daniel Winfrey, was given a 30-year sentence after he plead guilty and testified against the others. The courts commuted Richardson's sentence to life in prison in 2004 after ruling that a jury, not a judge, should have sentenced him to death.

Gray was executed by lethal injection in October 2005. When he was executed, prosecutor's described him as the "mastermind of the murders."

If that's the case, why is the state going through with the execution of Reggie? Prosecutors brought forth no evidence linking him to the crimes and conceded he did not plan their deaths or push them from the bridge.

"Reggie’s case is marked by the familiar litany of abuses found in so many capital cases: police brutality, prosecutorial misconduct, racial bias and ineffective assistance of trial counsel. It is also a textbook case of reasonable doubt, a fundamental element of our criminal justice system that requires especially intense consideration in death penalty cases.Actor, human rights activist Danny Glover (For more click here)"

Gov. Nixon, there are several facts about this case that I hope you find disturbing.

Tom Cummins, the Kerry sisters' cousin, served as the state's star witness. Before police arrested Reggie and his three alleged accomplices, Cummins was their number one suspect. On the night of the murders, he told police a group of youths ordered him to jump off the bridge after they had pushed the Kerry sisters into the river. Police doubted the story. Cummins showed no signs of being in the river or swimming against its deadly currents. According to police reports, he had no injuries and his hair was dry and neatly-combed.

Under questioning, Cummins implicated himself in the death of his cousins, stating they had fallen from the bridge after he made an advance toward one of them. He was charged with murder but later recanted the story, saying police beat the confession out of him.

Police found a flashlight on the bridge and traced it to Antonio Richardson, one of the youths on the bridge that night. After Richardson implicated himself, Daniel Winfrey, Marlin Gray and Reginald Clemons, police suddenly found merit in Cummins' questionable version of events.

Marlin Gray was one of the four young men police arrested for the crime. Gray also recanted his confession, claiming that he too, was beaten and that police coerced his confession. Gray and Cummins gave nearly identical accounts of their beatings by the same interrogating officers.

The trial court denied Gray's motion to suppress his confession that he raped and murdered the Kerry sisters. Gray's lawyers maintain that the prosecutor, Nels Moss, knew of Cummins' beating claim but never shared that information with Gray's attorneys. If the court knew that both men were beaten, his lawyers argue, it might have stricken Gray's confession.

When Cummins was arrested for the murders, he initially told police he only saw "a hand" push his cousins. During Gray's trial, he adapted his story, testifying it was Gray's hand he saw.

Reggie's parents say police detectives had no warrant when they arrested their son at his home in suburban St. Louis. In fact, Vera Thomas, Reggie’s mother, said police told her Reggie did not need a lawyer. She believed them. After all, Reggie, 19 at the time, had no criminal record and showed no signs of criminal behavior.

Reggie also claimed police beat the confession out of him (click here to read excerpts from Clemons' April 7, 1991 taped confession). His bruises were so severe that during his arraignment in April 1991, Judge Michael David sent him to the hospital for treatment.

Even though Reggie maintained his confession was coerced and, to this day, has never admitted pushing the Kerry Sisters off the bridge -- the state sees fit to execute him.

On the day Reggie was sentenced to death in 1993, Cummins filed a lawsuit against the Police Department and reportedly later received a $150,000 settlement.

"Before April 1991, I hadn’t given much thought to the criminal justice system. I just assumed people got fair trials and if someone was convicted, they must be guilty. I’d hear hideous descriptions about what someone did and think they were a horrible person. I didn’t find out until Reggie’s case that what you see in the news or even in court is not always the whole story." -- Vera Thomas, Reginald Clemons’s mother (For more click here)

Governor, many will say that Reggie's case has been thoroughly reviewed by the courts. Indeed, in 1998, after lawyers filed a petition in federal court detailing the numerous problems with Reggie’s conviction -- including lack of evidence, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective counsel, police brutality, the fact of innocence and an unconstitutional jury selection process (in a city with a population of more than 50 percent black, only two of the twelve jurors who heard Reggie's case were African-American) -- United States District Court Judge Catherine D. Perry ruled Reggie’s death sentence "unconstitutional."

That decision was overturned in 2004 by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Although Reggie’s death sentence was reinstated, Judge Michael Melloy, (a George W. Bush nominee) argued in his dissent that Reggie’s constitutional rights had been violated and his death sentence should not be imposed.

Was "justice," really served in this case? It's a question that a former small town lawyer might want to ask himself while he deliberates.

Gov. Nixon, you were born a year before me on February 13, 1956. We were raised during a time when the mere accusation of black men raping or assaulting white women was cause for death or incarceration. I implore you, Governor, reflect on those times while reading court transcripts from the Chain of Rocks Bridge murder case.

Decipher the words used by then prosecutor, Nels Moss, who, during the penalty phase of Gray's trial described the defendant's white, female character witnesses as "followers of Charles Manson."

You'll come across another part in the court's transcripts where Moss uses other code words. He reminded jurors that crime was out of control and he detailed shootings that may happen on their block. Note how Moss suggested killing Gray was a way to deal with escalating crime.

Do you think those words might have prejudiced the case, Mr. Nixon?

The appeals document lists several rulings that state: "A prosecutor may not urge jurors to convict a criminal defendant in order to protect community values, preserve civil order, or deter future lawbreaking."

Isn't that exactly what Moss did?

Perhaps this explains why on the same day Reggie's trial ended in 1993, the trial judge sanctioned the prosecutor for improper behavior. A few months later, the court held that the prosecutor was in direct criminal contempt for his actions in the courtroom. The judge imposed a monetary fine on the prosecutor. Reggie, however, was sentenced to death.

Again, was justice really served?

Governor, you were elected last year under a nationwide banner of "Change." With more than a million black men in our nation's prisons (many for non-violent crimes) and disproportionate numbers of minorities sitting on death row waiting to be killed, many voters want reasoned political leadership and courageous intervention.

Dozens of death row inmates have been exonerated in recent years, thanks in part to new DNA testing techniques. Even former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who was later convicted of a felony, recognized that the death penalty is "reserved almost exclusively for the poor and people of color." Ryan, who understands that the death penalty is no deterrent to crime, called for a moratorium on state-sanctioned killing in Illinois.

If a flawed politician can recognize institutional flaws in the system and muster the courage to say "no more," surely, Governor, a man of your caliber can also rise to the challenge.

Mr. Nixon, both you and I are husbands and fathers. If there's no other choice, we will kill if our spouses or our children are under immediate, life-threatening danger. Barring this, there are "other" ways to punish murderers without becoming killers ourselves.

I'm hoping this reaches the heart of the Jay Nixon who attends First United Methodist Church. I'm not talking to a politician like the one Christine Nema described in her letter to the Post-Dispatch after the death of Skillicorn who "assent(s) to popular opinion."

No, I'm talking to the man who prays for forgiveness in church; the man who professes to follow Jesus' teachings and understands that "vengeance" is in the Lord's hands not those of "imperfect Man" incapable of righteously deciding who should live or who should die.

I'm hoping a Christian heart will take time and truly investigate and contemplate, before making his decision about clemency. If you can, Mr. Nixon, watch FOX 2 reporter Bornita Cornute's three-part interview with Reggie. (Part One aired on On July 29, 2008, Parts Two & Three were posted on the station's website). The facts of the case and Reggie's own words may give you the needed pause and the resolve to do the courageous thing.

When you refused to give clemency to Richard Skillicorn, Mr. Governor, you said it was because he killed and killed again. I don't condone your decision but I want to trust your reasoning.

What reasoning applies to the murder of Reggie?

No court has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he killed. Will Reggie's execution bring solace to the victims' family?

I can't imagine their pain and sorrow. But I have met many, many family members of murder victims who have risen above their pain and publicly called for a halt to the death penalty. These people substituted humanity for pain.

These courageous souls are on my mind as I reach out to you, Jay Nixon. This is your chance to do something courageous, your chance to stand for humanity, to be Reggie's last hope, to truly speak for the citizens of this state who want no part of murder in our name.


The facts about Reginald Clemons and the Chain of Rocks Bridge case posted in this blog were compiled from my articles and columns written in Take Five Magazine and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and from the "Justice for Reggie web site at:

The deadline for clemency petitions for Reginald Clemons is Friday, June 12.

Sample letters can be found HERE. Send to Gov. Nixon (see address above) and a copy to Steve Long, Chairman of the Board of Probation and Parole at 1511 Christy / Jefferson City, MO 65101

For more information contact: JUSTICE for Reggie Campaign (314) 367-5959


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing Gov. Nixon. I hope he listens to the many pleas to abolish the death penalty.


Anonymous said...

Sylvester, I do hope and pray Gov. Jay Nixon will pay attention to your request and allow "no more murders". I hope he looks in his Christian heart, prays to God to do the right thing---no more killing.
I totally agree with you.
G. Young, Vandalia, Il.

Anonymous said...

"As far as I know, the commandment is not, "Thou shalt not kill--except if a court says so." -- Mary

Anonymous said...

you brought up many valid points....all you forgot to mention were the facts of the's commical really

Barry Turnage said...

Until the mainstream AND "Black" media sees fit to doggedly investigate cases like the wrongful termination of someone like myself, Barry Turnage, from City Hall in 2004, we so-called "Blacks" will ALWAYS suffer the sad routine of flagrant miscarriages of justice at the hands of corrupt City officials- paid to abuse their authority with our taxes- that are similar to the Reginald Clemons case.

I remember thinking, "so THIS is what it's like to be rolled/discarded down the greased lane of wrongful conviction like some errant bowling ball" when I was going through the formalities of pre-arranged, undue disciplinary proceedings (the City Hall kangaroo court of Civil Service Commission appeals proceedings). Coincidentally, Ms. Jamala Rogers has 6° of separation between my circumstance and Mr. Clemons (she attended my appeal proceedings at my request).

You see, until the "BIG FISHES", aka the Sylvester Browns, have as much concern for investigating the racist slights against everyday law-abiding people like me (small fish) who are wronged, more valued people like himself (journalist/editor), Reggie (with his Rosa Parks complected parents) & Fire Chief George, et al, will continue to drop like flies as the machine of institutional racism chews up and spits out the best and brightest- be they well-connected or not.

Should more of you "prominent Blacks" (with influence) start standing up for "little" people like me, you "prominent Blacks"- who hang your hat on being "the first" fly in the buttermilk- won't have to go it alone in all-white settings because there'll be more of US (people like me) around to stand with you when it's YOUR turn to feel the sting of institutional collusion.

My letters to Governor Nixon and Commissioner Kelvin Simmons to repair the financial damage done to ME has gone unanswered as well. Let's hope Mr. Clemons has more luck since his is the story that receives more press.

IMO, it's also ironic that I'd later worked for both the St. Louis Argus & Sentinel and in no way would they dare focus on my story because of their own disinterest in the lives of everyday "Blacks" in favor of focusing on pulling non-status-quo-threatening stories from AP wire sources. Advertisers don't pay for "Black stories" that don't feature quotes from our overhyped ministers and politicians.

The featured pull quote from Reggie's mom (in this blog post) proves right what I was told by one "Black" newspaper publisher: "Black folk tend to believe whatever they read." By all accounts, Reggie's innocent- ain't he? He must be- the "Black" press says so. In contrast, nothing was murdered/nothing died in my wrongful termination case but my own once-promising career- unjustly.

Barry Turnage
Graphic Designer
Thanks for not deleting my comment

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