On August 7, 1985, inmate Henry Johnson was stabbed to death by another inmate at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. A corrections officer who was nearby at the time of the crime, Thomas Steigerwald, saw Eric Clemmons and Fred Bagby running from the scene. He chased down Clemmons, and found that he had blood on his shirt. Clemmons was charged with first-degree murder.
At trial, the testimony of two corrections officers was particularly damning for Clemmons. Steigerwald identified Clemmons as the person who had stabbed Johnson, and another corrections officer, Captain A.M. Gross, claimed that Clemmons said to him, “I guess they got me.” Clemmons maintained that Bagby killed Johnson, and then ran into him, staining his shirt with blood. Several other inmates also testified that Bagby was the killer. However, Bagby had died between the time of the murder and the trial, and prosecutors argued that the inmate witnesses were simply trying to help Clemmons by blaming someone who could no longer defend himself. In 1987, Clemmons was convicted of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death.
After his 1988 appeal was denied, another inmate gave Clemmons some papers which included a memo written by Captain Gross on the day of the murder. In the memo, Gross reported that an inmate who had witnessed the crime said he had seen two people stabbing Johnson, and he was sure one of them was Bagby. However, Gross conducted no further investigation into Bagby’s involvement.
Despite Clemmons’s insistence, his attorneys did not raise this issue in an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court, and in October 1990, the Court upheld Clemmons’s conviction. In 1995, citing suppressed evidence and ineffective defense counsel, Clemmons petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri for a writ of habeas corpus, but it was denied. On July 21, 1997, Clemmons filed another habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court, and on August 28, the Court found that Clemmons’s constitutional rights had been violated when exculpatory evidence was suppressed, and his conviction was vacated.
On February 18, 2000, Clemmons was re-tried for the murder of Henry Johnson. In addition to the previously suppressed witness testimony, an expert testified that the blood on Clemmons’s clothing hadn’t come from a stab wound, but from someone brushing against him. Clemmons was acquitted by a jury in less than three hours. He remains in prison for his previous, unrelated crime.
– Alexandra Gross