Saturday, 15 May 2010

Death on the bridge

Today I looked through the Amnesty International USA report on Reggie Clemons – it’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve read in a while. If you have the time to take a look at it- I can guarantee it will shock you.

Regie is currently on death row in Missouri – as an accomplice in the murder of two young women who were pushed of a bridge into the Mississippi in 1991. One of his friends has already been executed for the crime; another had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

He may have committed the crime. But he may not have. For a start there is no physical evidence...understandable as one of the murdered women was not pulled from the water until three days after she went in and the other was never found. But more concerning still is the mile-long list of irregularities and accusations that mar Reggie’s conviction.

Like the allegations of torture by police officers (made all the more suspicious by unexplained injuries to Regie as he sat in court and a large out-of-court payment to another suspect who alleged abuse). Like the cousin of the murdered girls who changed his story several times (even admitting to the murder himself) before finally pointing the finger at Regie and his friends. Like the misconduct of the prosecution lawyer that nearly resulted in the case being thrown out. Like the irregular jury selection process in which potential jurors were chosen on the basis of their skin colour and their support for the death penalty – even in cases where the law would not normally impose it. These are problems that have not only been noted by human rights groups – but by one of the judges before his calls for a review were overturned at a higher level.

I’m not saying this makes Regie innocent – but I challenge anyone to read the 14 page report then say that he doesn’t deserve at least a retrial.

In an age of DNA testing and CCTV the “what if we got the wrong person?” argument is often brushed aside in debates about the death penalty. People point to cases such as the Soham Killings to demonstrate that the culprit can be beyond doubt, then move on to (equally important) matters such as the relative morality of state-sanctioned-killing or the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ philosophy.

But in Regie Clemons’ case we have an example of a young man – in a liberal democratic state with a supposedly fair legal system – facing execution at some point in the coming weeks, months or years – for a crime that no one can say for sure he committed.

What if the jury did get it wrong?

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