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.

Past high school "the party" went on: endless nights, college for some, reunions in town during summer breaks. Part-time jobs, profound conversations, guitar jams, perennially lit Marlboros. Weekend camping trips, east-side beer runs, no shortage of pot, coke when you could afford it, the occasional Quaalude or hallucinogen. At twenty we all had glazed eyes half the time.

Suzy's friends and mine. The orbits intersected only briefly, but "the party" was the same.

Still, there were a few differences. My orbit was more culturally diverse, the U. City populace a laid-back bunch, even in an era known for its permissiveness.

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.

"What did we all do at that time?" Earl Mulley says, hedging when I ask him to elaborate about Todd's drug use. "You know the time. You know what people were doing back then. You and I knew a lot of the same people. You go to [so-and-so's] house, and you know what was going to happen.

"And the partying [in Forest Park] was no different than that group of people. And you know we're all sane and alive and everything from what we did. But how that cost Todd — for that to be the cause of what happened — that's what I saw the defense was trying to prove."

Understand, it was a different time. The legal age to buy alcohol in Missouri had always been twenty-one, but in Illinois it was nineteen. The stigma attached to drug use didn't extend much beyond heroin. Sex? At U. City any student could earn the state-mandated health-class credit by taking a sex-ed course taught by a gorgeous woman who put up posters with slogans like "Protect Your Lover/Wear a Rubber."

At least, that was how I grew up.

As he'd told the Kansas City Star, Eric Clemmons had not spent his time in prison sitting back.

He petitioned for a new trial, post-conviction relief, recalls of mandates, appeals of denials of appeals and, finally, the convicted man's Hail Mary: a federal writ of habeas corpus.

Chief among Clemmons' contentions:

• That the trial judge failed to give the jury the proper instructions regarding a potential verdict of self-defense, essentially ruling out the lawful use of deadly force;

• That his public defender provided ineffective counsel, refusing to call witnesses and otherwise putting little effort into Clemmons' case;

• That the medical examiner testified at his trial that he had struck the fatal blows but at his brother's trial testified that Barnes had.

To the eyes of most appellate judges, the first assertion, though true, probably had no bearing on the jury verdict. The second pillar of Clemmons' protest rang of boilerplate prison lawyering, and appellate panels likewise dismissed it. Yet in hindsight his contention sheds light on a troubling era of the state's jurisprudence.

In the course of this investigation, RFT came across a 2010 Missouri Law Review paper titled "Missouri's Public Defender Crisis," in which author Sean O'Brien examines how the system has been dogged by "heavy workloads, a lack of resources, and staff turnover for so long that many attorneys do not even know what competent representation is."

O'Brien's Exhibit A: John M. "Jack" Walsh, disbarred in 1988. Walsh was Clemmons' public defender.

Walsh's flameout began a year after he lost Clemmons' case, when a jury sentenced another of his clients, Mose Young, to die for a triple murder that took place during a pawn-shop robbery.

"Although Walsh was an experienced public defender," writes O'Brien, himself a former public defender, "he presented no mitigating evidence on Young's behalf. He had conducted no investigation.... He did virtually nothing to attempt to save his client's life."

Walsh had inherited the case at the last minute, having just completed a major rape trial and another murder trial, back to back. "He had given no thought to the penalty phase of Young's case," O'Brien writes. "His workload did not permit it."

Reached by phone at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where he now teaches law, O'Brien tells RFT, "Alcohol was Jack Walsh's downfall. But it was parallel to his caseload. He was going from trial to trial to trial not having time to meet with clients. What he was capable of, even drunk, was giving the appearance of representation, because he had courtroom skills. He was flying by the seat of his pants. Someone looking in from the outside would see what superficially appeared to be a fair trial. When the defense lawyer is not functioning properly, that's a significant contributing factor in improper convictions."

Riverfront Times was unable to locate Walsh for comment.

Jay McKay, a public defender in the Middlesex Judicial District in Connecticut, was Walsh's assistant at the time of Clemmons' trial. "It was a really brutal period in the city's criminal-justice system," McKay recalls. "There was an unprecedented volume of cases. It was not something anybody could keep up with — it was just lunacy. A lot of those cases went to Jack Walsh. There was nobody else who would take those cases on."

McKay notes that until a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Batson v. Kentucky, banning the practice, prosecutors routinely stacked juries by excluding blacks simply for their race. The issue was spotlighted in Missouri in June 2000, when Jane Geiler, a former St. Louis prosecutor, stated during a hearing on a stay of execution for Mose Young that prior to Batson, St. Louis prosecutors "always, always" used their strikes to remove black jurors. (Court documents don't identify by race jurors struck from the Clemmons and Barnes trials. Clemmons says his jury included one African American; Stanley Barnes says his had none.)

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