The evidentiary hearing for Reggie Clemons ended Sept. 20 after four days of testimonies and exhibits were heard and seen by Special Master Michael Manners. Days before Clemons’ execution in 2009, Judge Manners was appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court in response to community outrage and a court motion by Clemons’ attorneys. Early next year, Judge Manners will take on the next critical phase of his judicial obligation–to comb through court transcripts, videotapes, audiotapes, exhibits and other related evidence that will inform his recommendation to the Missouri Supreme Court. The judge will have the unique capacity to review and to assess the totality of all the evidence in this case.
Without going into the specific elements of Reggie’s case, what becomes abundantly clear from being in the courtroom all week is that our justice system is broken and in great need of an overhaul. This is no minor observation when the death penalty is involved.
Recently, federal judge Carol Jackson added her voice to a growing chorus of voices criticizing the St. Louis Police Department’s long history of abuse and said that it was either “deliberately indifferent” to “a widespread persistent pattern of unconstitutional conduct” or “tacitly approved” it.
In the Chain of Rocks Bridge tragedy, all three of the adult suspects alleged police brutality. The outcomes of their allegations were very different: Clemons and Marlin Gray received death sentences for the deaths of Robin and Julie Kerry; Tom Cummins received a $150,000 settlement.
In order to create an environment where truth and justice prevail, it starts with the police department. That department must be sophisticated and objective in its investigation, letting the facts drive the conclusion and not fast-tracking an investigation by beating suspects into confession, then declaring the case is solved
Likewise, when you have a public entity like the prosecutor’s office tainted by the misconduct of one of its prosecutors, that environment of justice has been breached. Former prosecutor Nels Moss (who prosecuted all of the Bridge cases) was a top prosecutor for years, yet his career is riddled with at least 20 appellate overturns of his convictions and numerous citations of contempt of court.
All along the way, there must be checks and balances in the criminal justice system to ensure that justice has been served and the process is being respected. We know that is not the case. According to the national registry created and maintained by the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law, more than 2000 people have been exonerated for serious crimes over the last couple of decades. These are only the known cases and don’t include the hundreds that are poised for a new light to shine on the case. It is unfortunate that few will get the opportunity that Reggie received because of the interventions of the Missouri Supreme Court. Justice should not be such a capricious and arbitrary commodity.
We all have a role to play in holding the systems accountable that make up the judicial system—the police, the courts and the prisons. The public must be vigilant as informed citizens, as potential jurors and as employees of the judicial system. Citizens must believe that the system is not stacked, corrupt or dysfunctional or else they lose trust in the public institutions that are entrusted to safeguard the process and guarantee the outcomes. The media also has an important role as well, and that is to provide accurate and objective coverage of crimes against our community.
As Reggie, his family and supporters began the wait for Judge Manners’ conclusion, we are committed to reforming the system that ensnares innocent victims and robs both the families of the convicted and the murder victim’s families of the justice and peace that they all deserve. Such is the hallmark of a functional and humane judicial system.