The afternoon of Sunday, Aug. 7, 1991, began as an ordinary day for Vera Thomas. It wasn’t until the police showed up at the doorstep of her St. Louis home that she realized something was wrong. Police asked Thomas if they could speak with her 19-year-old son Reginald Clemons.
“They told him they only wanted to talk,” Thomas said. “Everything will pan out and he will be back home. Well, he hasn’t been back home since then.”
Thomas was a guest speaker at the Reggie Clemons Death Penalty Speaker Series hosted by the Amnesty International student group at Webster University. On Thursday, March 1, 2011, three speakers shared their experiences and support for the abolition of the death penalty.
— Laura Moye, Amnesty International USA’s death penalty campaign coordinator,
— Randy Steidl, a man exonerated from death row, and
— Vera Thomas, mother to current death row inmate Reggie Clemons.
“Amnesty International is an organization that shines a light on human rights all over the world,” Emily Anderson, president of Amnesty International at Webster University, said. “We’ve been wanting to do an event like this for quite some time and it’s really exciting that it is all coming together.”
Anderson said last year Amnesty International supported the movement for an inmate named Troy Davis to be taken off of death row. Davis was a man from Georgia accused of murdering a police officer. He maintained his innocence up until his execution on September 21, 2011. Since Davis’s execution, Amnesty International decided to participate in the movement for Clemons.
Clemons has been on death row since 1993. While Clemons maintains his innocence, he is accused of being an accomplice in the Chain of Rocks Bridge murder of two teenage St. Louis girls in August 1991.
“I do think about the families often,” Thomas said. “Every time I cross a bridge or a river. I am constantly, constantly reminded.”
Thomas discussed her son’s experience with corrupt practices through interrogations and the flaws in the U.S. death penalty system. At one trial, Thomas said Clemons showed up with a swollen face. The judge ordered him to the hospital.
“It’s a real nightmare; it’s still unfolding,“ Thomas said.
As an innocent man proven guilty in a court of law, Randy Steidl was once in Clemons’ position. He was on death row for 12 years. Steidl was incarcerated for 17 years total for a crime he didn’t commit. He had a corroborated alibi and no physical or forensic evidence tying him to the crime.
“I still didn’t believe I heard ‘guilty’ (at his trial) until I heard my mom scream,” Steidl said.
After being exonerated from death row and prison in 2004, Steidl was in the Illinois legislature when the state voted to end the death penalty a year ago. He is now chair of the board of Witness to Innocence — the nation’s only organization founded by, for and about exonerated death row survivors and their loved ones.
“It wasn’t the system that exonerated us, we were exonerated in spite of the system,” Steidl said.
Steidl supports abolition of the death penalty in all states and Clemons’ campaign for a fair trial.
After many set execution dates, trials and appeals, Thomas said that Clemons was able to get a stay by the Missouri Supreme Court. The court appointed a special master who will review Clemons’ case.
Clemons’ case was originally scheduled March 5, 2012, but has been rescheduled to Sept. 17, 2012. After corrupt and unfair interrogations, Thomas hopes for her son to receive a fair trial. This trial will determine if Clemons will remain on death row and if another execution date will be set.
“We are hoping we will have our day in court after 20 years,” Thomas said.
In the meantime, supporting groups are gathering signatures for Clemons’ campaign and will support him with a positive presence outside the courthouse at his trial in September. Death penalty campaign coordinator Laura Moye said campaigning and supporting an inmate are great ways to bring light to the death penalty issue.
“If we can put a human face on an issue of injustice and make it more real and more tangible, we can make a positive impact,” Moye said.
Thirty-four states in the United States still have the death penalty. But Moye said the number of death sentences and executions in the country have been declining.
“I think the revelation of innocence cases on death row and the many problems and issues of unfairness have led more and more jurors to be more skeptical when they are asked whether to give the death penalty or not,” Moye said.
Steidl said he had no idea there was support for inmates on death row when he was incarcerated.
“Years ago I thought I was an anomaly,” Steidl said. “I thought that nobody out there cares and nobody thinks you’re innocent.”
While Clemons awaits his trial, he will have support from many, including his mother. She still visits Clemons once a week.
“Remember, you can release an innocent man from prison, I’m living proof of it,” Steidl said. “But you can’t release him from his grave.”