Answer Man

After 26 years, Reginald Clemons still awaits fate in deaths of Kerry sisters

NYT: Death penalty politics

Political positions on the death penalty have evolved since 1988, when Michael S. Dukakis's presidential campaign was damaged because of his opposition to it.
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Political positions on the death penalty have evolved since 1988, when Michael S. Dukakis's presidential campaign was damaged because of his opposition to it.

Q: Whatever happened to Reginald Clemons, the man whose conviction in the deaths of two sisters on the Chain of Rocks Bridge in 1991 was overturned? Did the Ferguson shooting have anything to do with his second attempt to be prosecuted?

Michael Pospeshil

A: When 19th century Pennsylvania jurist John Bannister Gibson supposedly said, “The millstones of justice turn exceedingly slow but grind exceedingly fine,” he could very well have been predicting the case of Reginald Clemons.

It has been more than a quarter century since sisters Julie Kerry, 20, and Robin Kerry, 19, were raped and forced to jump off the old Chain of Rocks Bridge to their deaths on April 5, 1991. Yet 26 years later, Clemons sits in the St. Louis City Jail waiting to be retried on charges for which he was once sentenced to death. And it will be a while before those millstones start to turn again, but not because of Ferguson: Last September, Clemons’ defense team was granted another six-month extension for trial preparation, pushing a new trial date from last month to at least this August.

As you likely know, Clemons is the last of four charged in the case still awaiting a final verdict. Marlin Grey, 23, was executed in October 2005. Antonio D. Richardson, 16, also was condemned to death but the Missouri Supreme Court tossed out the sentence, and Richardson was given life without parole. Daniel Winfrey, 15, was given a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder in exchange for his testimony against the other three. He was paroled in 2007.

Meanwhile, Clemons’ long battle through the courts continues. It began in February 1993, when he was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Nearly 10 years later a federal judge overturned the death sentence, ruling that six prospective jurors were improperly excluded after expressing reservations about capital punishment. The reprieve, however, was short-lived. In September 2004, a federal appeals court reinstated the death penalty.

Then, in June 2009, a federal appeals court halted Clemons’ execution without explanation as his defense team ramped up its efforts to win Clemons a new trial. They finally struck paydirt two days before Thanksgiving 2015, when, in a 4-3 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court threw out his first-degree murder conviction, sending the case back to circuit court.

The decision was based on the findings of Michael Masters, a retired judge, who, in July 2009, had been appointed as a “special master” to review the case. Manners found that even though Clemons had not proved his innocence, St. Louis prosecutors had wrongly suppressed evidence and that detectives had beaten Clemons into confessing to the crimes.

Less than two months later, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce announced that she would retry the first-degree murder charge and again seek the death penalty. Joyce, 54, did retire last December after 15 years as the city’s top prosecutor, but not before successfully petitioning the court to have the Missouri attorney general’s office take over as the new prosecutor in the case. Now we have to wait at least a few more months to see how fine those millstones finally will grind for the 45-year-old Clemons.

Q: When I was in the service many years ago, I remember seeing a show in which a comedian performed a funny little song called “Grandma’s Lye Soap.” Could that have been Andy Griffith?

L.G., of Belleville

A: It’s possible he could have used it as a filler piece, but (and this is only my opinion) I doubt it.

Although the comic ditty about the wonders of the homemade soap made from lard, lye and water certainly would have fit Griffith’s backwoods style, he never released it on any of his comedy albums. Considering how popular this song was at the time, this leads me to suspect it was someone else you saw — but more on that in a sec.

Griffith did indeed start off doing comedy monologues, hitting the big time with “What It Was, Was Football,” a college gridiron game as told from the perspective of a naive country preacher, who described convicts refereeing a game involving a “funny-lookin’ punkin” on a small cow pasture. When the six-minute routine was eventually released on Capitol records in 1953, it sold nearly 800,000 copies and helped launch Griffith’s career in TV, stage and film. An illustrated version was even included in the July 1958 issue of Mad magazine (http://madcoversite.com/missing_was.html).

In researching this question, I’ve seen a couple of people say they remembered that Griffith had put “Grandma’s Lye Soap” on the B-side, but that’s not true. The original Capitol cover clearly states the flip side is Griffith’s Romeo and Juliet routine, which he also included on future albums.

Instead, I suggest you might have seen Johnny Standley, another backwoods-style comedian from Oklahoma City who, in about 1952, recorded a six-minute comedy routine called “It’s in the Book.” The A-side of this 45 was Standley’s riff on Little Bo Peep and her lost sheep. Then, when you flip the record, he sings “Grandma’s Lye Soap”: “Little Therman and Brother Herman had an aversion to washing their ears. Grandma scrubbed them with her lye soap, and they haven’t heard a word in years! Oh, let us sing right out, sing out! For Grandma’s Lye Soap ...”

The recording, backed by Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights, sold at least 2 million copies, which may (or may not) be more evidence why Griffith would have relied on his own work rather than using someone else’s best-seller. In any case, you might want to see if this YouTube video brings back any memories at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdaeQLCTa6g.

Today’s trivia

Where would you find the nation’s only round state capitol?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: Montana did not have a daytime speed limit on its highways until 1974, when the federal government ordered all states to post a 55 mph limit as a fuel conservation measure. However, the state did not enforce the limit until Washington threatened to withhold highway funds. Only then did the state start imposing a $5 fine that could be paid on the spot. The state reportedly lost $22 in labor and processing costs for each ticket written.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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