Thirty years after a white minister's son was beaten to death in the Central West End, one black man remains in prison. But there's plenty of guilt to go around.

"We spent time every day together on Maryland," recalls Clemmons, who by the early 1980s had moved with his mother to the municipality of Pine Lawn in north county while his half-brother Stanley remained in the city, in the house their great-grandfather owned and where Clemmons had grown up. Clemmons remembers how, for privacy, he and his friends would "unhook one of the streetlights and it would darken half the block."

On the night of August 13, Clemmons was leaning against his Buick LeSabre on the southwest corner of Whittier at Maryland, listening to R&B playing on the stereo. With him were the Fair brothers — Greg, Dewayne, Darrell and Keith — whose father was a deputy sheriff, and who lived with their mother right across Maryland from Clemmons' great-grandfather. Antonio Hawkins, who lived with the Fairs, was there, too, plus Gerald Williams and Darryl Wiley. Some of the guys had just gotten off from a shift at Gene Lynn's, others had seen the Gap Band downtown at Kiel Auditorium. Clemmons, who'd dropped out of Vashon High School, was unemployed.

His memory of the night of the murder is hazy. "We're sitting there. Somebody says, 'Stanley's hollering he's being robbed!' Everybody got to running down there." He told police that the friends found Barnes fighting with Washington, whom they beat until he fled. They knocked down and beat Weems on Maryland, then chased him across Whittier into the lot behind Gene Lynn's. That's where Clemmons says he picked up a pipe and hit Weems twice in the head. He claimed he hadn't known Weems had died. And though his statement at the time mentioned nothing about it, he maintained at trial (and has continued to insist) that he picked up the pipe in self-defense after Weems swung a board at him.

Eric Clemmons is serving a life term for the 1982 murder of Todd Weems. Tried for the same crime, Clemmons' half-brother Stanley Barnes was sentenced to twelve years and served six and a half.
Tony D'Souza
Eric Clemmons is serving a life term for the 1982 murder of Todd Weems. Tried for the same crime, Clemmons' half-brother Stanley Barnes was sentenced to twelve years and served six and a half.

The entire episode — racing down Maryland, pummeling Washington, the lethal beating of Todd Weems, began and ended in a matter of two minutes.

"In that neighborhood, you had to take people at face value," Clemmons says. "Most white [people] out at that time of night — they're hustlers or looking to buy drugs. My little brother was being robbed. We saw it as a threat. Todd Weems made a mistake in causing the problem, but I compounded it by overreacting.

"The Fairs were the people I was closest to in the world," he adds bitterly. "I considered myself part of the Fair family. Greg put me away. That's how I feel about it. I would like to ask them, 'Why did you have to embellish the truth?'"

Clemmons' mother, Carole Blocker, now lives in Black Jack, having retired after a career as a bookkeeper for a tool company. "We didn't come from a bad background," Blocker says. "My grandparents were ministers. Eric and Stanley were good boys. This one incident ruined their lives — it's almost the same as if Eric died.

"The Weemses are still deeply hurt," she goes on. "I do feel for them. But they have to search their hearts and ask: 'Why was my son in that area and with [Lindsey Washington]?' This was a manslaughter case. Eric's lawyer was drunk and didn't do anything for him."

Transported to the maximum-security Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City at age 21, Clemmons was unprepared for prison. "I was very green," he says now. "I was very friendly. You cannot be friendly without suffering some kind of consequences."

For Clemmons the consequences took the form of a cellmate, Henry Johnson, who Clemmons says made persistent sexual advances, which he violently rebuffed. Ultimately prison officials moved Clemmons to another cell.

Not long afterward, on August 7, 1985, Johnson was stabbed outside a housing unit. The scene was chaotic and crowded, but a guard ID'ed Clemmons as the assailant, and when Johnson died of his wounds, Clemmons found himself on trial for murder again. Three fellow inmates testified on his behalf, but the guard's version of events swayed the jury. In 1987 Clemmons was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

As in the Weems case, he maintained his innocence. This time, however, he had material evidence, in the form of a memo that had been withheld at trial, in which another guard noted that an inmate who'd witnessed the killing had fingered someone else for the crime. With the assistance of a fellow Death Row inmate (Doyle Williams, who was executed in 1996), Clemmons filed appeal after appeal, before engaging the help of two attorneys from Kansas City, Cheryl Pilate and Charlie Rogers.

In 1997 Rogers persuaded a panel of three federal judges to overturn Clemmons' conviction.

Undaunted, then-Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon retried Clemmons in 2000. A jury acquitted him after three hours of deliberation.

"He basically had written Cheryl with a desperate plea for help," recounts Rogers, reached by phone in Kansas City, now with Wyrsch Hobbs & Mirakian. "It was poorly done by his defense the first time. Doing a decent investigation made a big difference."

Interviewed after his acquittal for an article in the Kansas City Star, Clemmons brought up the Weems case.

"I can't just sit back," he said. "I've got to let it be known I want to be free."

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