ST. LOUIS – After maintaining his innocence for more than a quarter of a century, Reginald Clemons admitted Monday that he took part in the rape and killing of two sisters who were pushed from an abandoned St. Louis bridge into the Mississippi River.
Clemons spent 22 years on death row before the Missouri Supreme Court threw out the conviction in 2015 after finding that prosecutors suppressed evidence that police had beaten a confession out of him. His case drew support from prisoners' rights organizations and legal groups.
But on Monday, he pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of rape and one count of first-degree robbery. Under a plea agreement, Clemons, 46, was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences.
Asked by Circuit Judge Rex Burlison if the allegations against him were true, Clemons replied "Yes, your honor," according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"There's no happy ending for this family that has been through so much, but I was relieved that he finally owned up to what he did," former St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, who made the decision to re-try the case, said.
Julie Kerry, 20, and her 19-year-old sister, Robin, were visiting the abandoned Chain of Rocks bridge with a male cousin, Thomas Cummins, late on the night of April 4, 1991. They encountered Clemons, who was 19 at the time, along with his cousin, Antonio Richardson, and two friends, Marlin Gray and Daniel Winfrey.
Clemons and his friends robbed Cummins of money and a watch, and they took turns raping the Kerry sisters. They then led the three through a manhole to a substructure of the bridge, from which they pushed the sisters into the river and forced Cummins to jump.
Julie Kerry's body was found three weeks later, 150 miles downriver. Robin Kerry's body was never recovered. Cummins was able to swim to shore.
Winfrey received a 30-year sentence in exchange for his cooperation and has since been paroled. Gray was executed in 2005. Richardson's death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
The sisters' mother, Ginny Kerry, was among those at Monday's hearing.
"I'm glad it's over," she told the Post-Dispatch. "And I'm glad he's finally admitted he's guilty. I'm tired of all the lies."
Joyce said Ginny Kerry attended every hearing for Clemons, each time being forced to re-hear the horrors her daughters experienced.
"I can't imagine a worse torture for a family to go through," Joyce said.
Clemons' attorney, public defender Brian Horneyer, didn't immediately reply to a message seeking comment.
Clemons was convicted in 1993 and sentenced to death. But he maintained his innocence, and many believed him. An organization called the "Justice for Reggie Campaign" updated supporters on developments in his court case and raised money for his defense.
"I was stunned by the news — it literally took my breath away," campaign coordinator Jamala Rogers wrote in an email to supporters after the guilty plea. "There are lots of emotions and many questions raging inside me right now and you probably feel the same."
At a 2012 hearing, Clemons testified he was beaten so badly during an interrogation that he admitted to the crime just so the beatings would stop. But asked 32 times by a prosecutor about the events that night, Clemons answered, "Under the advice of counsel I plead the Fifth."
In 2015, a "special master" appointed by the state Supreme Court found no direct evidence that Clemons didn't participate in the killings, but ruled that procedural errors in the original trial merited a retrial.