Can the USA claim to be a developed country? The Reggie Clemons case suggests not

In the US, overshadowed by the elections, death row inmate Reggie Clemons will have his hearing later this week. Indrani Balaratnam highlights why his case exemplifies the death penalty as a mark of a politically underdeveloped nation.

Reggie Clemons. Photograph: 4WardEver UK/Creative Commons

This week marks the final opportunity of Reggie Clemons, who has been on death row in Missouri for 19 years, to convince a judge that his trial was unfair. This is Reggie Clemons’ last chance to convince a judge he should not be killed.

The hearing started yesterday, and as it unfolds over the course of this week, we are reminded of the flaws of the United States judicial system. This hegemonic state prides itself on having dominance over the rest of the world – it places itself above the developing nations socially, politically and economically. But this week, as we hear about the discrepancies in this case and the efforts that the state of Missouri has gone through to execute this man, echoes of the case of Troy Davis from just one year ago are reverberating in everyone’s minds: a case which led to the execution of a man whose trial was saturated with controversy and riddled with countless inconsistencies The United States is within one third of the countries in the world that continue to practice the death penalty.

Presently, 34 states enforce the death penalty and between 2000 and 2011
there were 174 executions. How can we continue to regard the United States as a developed country when they are the only member of the G8 group to enforce the most degrading form of punishment upon man?

Reggie Clemons has been accused of pushing sisters Julie and Robin Kelly from a bridge that connects Missouri and Illinois in April 1991, and killing them. The sisters were on the bridge with their cousin, Thomas Cummins. Cummins, initially a suspect, told police Julie Kerry fell into the water by accident after he had made a sexual advance on her, then her sister jumped in after her to try and save her. He then retracted his statement claiming the statement was a result of police brutality, and settled a claim for $150,000 by St Louis police. Over time, his story of what happened that evening developed and he was given multiple chances to give completely contradictory accounts of what happened until he produced a story that enabled the charges against him to be dropped and a case against Clemons and three others to be opened.

The police turned to four men who had been seen on the bridge: Reggie Clemons, Marlin Gray, Antonio Richardson and Daniel Winfrey. Clemons confessed to rape but not murder, then retracted the confession, claiming police brutality, the bruises of which were so visibly severe that the Judge sent him to hospital for treatment during his arraignment in April 1991. The same detectives who interrogated Cummins then interrogated Clemons within 48 hours.

But Clemons was not granted any settlement and instead found his confession used against him as key evidence in the trial. Yesterday, the defence lawyers submitted that the prosecution withheld a rape kit from the defence before his trial and the tests on this kit were negative, excluding Reggie Clemons as a perpetrator.

Marlin Gray was executed in 2005 and Antonio Richardson is serving life imprisonment. Daniel Winfrey, the only white member of the group, was released in 2007 after he told a jailhouse friend “no one would believe a bunch of black men” and became a witness for the prosecution in exchange for a plea bargain, giving contradictory stories in the trial of Antonio Richardson and Reggie Clemons. Clemons was convicted based on the evidence of Winfrey and Cummins, the only two white males who were involved.

To this day, there is no DNA evidence, no fingerprints, and no hair or fibre samples that can connect Reggie Clemons to this crime. What does exist is evidence of continued racial bias within the judicial system, police brutality that is being disregarded despite the clear evidence, and unfortunately, yet another case of an poorly prepared, inadequate defence counsel that has endangered a man’s life. The defendants have consistently maintained their innocence throughout this case.

Reggie Clemons’ case is just one of many that should not have reached this
stage. It stands as a prime example of the reasons why the death penalty should be abolished. Has civility backtracked so far to the extent that we can accept murder as a solution to a problem? Can a system that regularly executes the innocent, the mentally disabled and those with intellectual deficit, continue to beg the respect of the rest of the world? Is society so cruel that it cannot grant even a guilty man the chance to rehabilitate himself?

The criminal justice system is not fail-safe. It relies on people who make mistakes. The racial discrimination within the system is indisputable and those with deep pockets who can afford the costs of investigators, psychiatrists and expert lawyers stand a far greater chance of having their sentence mitigated than the poor – yet the United States continues to gamble the lives of around 3251 people who are currently on death row. The United States stands as the leader of the developed nations, but after the suspension of the death penalty in Japan in 2009 it is now the only developed nation that continues to enforce the death penalty. Economically, the US may be at the forefront, but there is a long way to go before they can claim to be developed politically.

Before Marlin Gray was executed in 2005 he told Clemons: “I can’t believe you
still think that people are going to listen.” It is too late for Gray, but it is not too late for Clemons. This story needs to be heard and the truth of the flaws of the American judicial system must be examined.

Development in Action (DiA) is a development education charity run entirely by young people, for young people. Tickets for the DiA Christmas Ball are now online. Book early to make sure you get a place! Find out more here

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