Shortly after midnight on November 1, 1986, a man armed with a rifle broke into the Wellston, Missouri home of Clara Clay. Clay ran and hid in a closet. Her 16-year-old son, David Clay, Jr., briefly looked at the gunman and then fled to a bathroom, leaving behind the only other occupant of the home, 39-year-old Roosevelt Mixon.
The gunman fired 18 shots and 14 of them hit Mixon, killing him. The gunman then fled.
David Clay, Jr., at first told police he believed the gunman was Willie James Johnson. But then, he said he was 100 percent sure the gunman was his father, 37-year-old David Clay, Sr. During other interviews, he also said the gunman resembled yet another man, whom he only knew from the neighborhood by his nickname, “Tent Man.”
Police collected .22-caliber shell casings from the floor in Clara Clay’s home. Four days later, armed with a search warrant, police went to the home of her ex-husband, David Clay, Sr. There they found five .22-caliber shell casings in his back yard. When a crime lab ballistics analyst said the casings were fired from the same gun that was used in the murders, Clay, Sr., was arrested and charged with first degree murder, burglary and illegal use of a firearm.
During the search of Clay, Sr.’s home, police found a BB pistol and a loaded shotgun. The shotgun was linked to a shooting six months earlier of a woman with whom Clay, Sr., had had a previous romantic relationship.
The woman had broken off her relationship with Clay, Sr. and moved to a new apartment in St. Louis. On May 2, 1986, she called police to report seeing Clay, Sr., outside her apartment.
After waiting in her apartment for a while, she went downstairs to wait for police. When police arrived, the woman walked towards them, but before she reached the officers, she was struck in the back by a shotgun blast. The woman told police that Clay, Sr., was the gunman, but police could not find him.
The woman was hospitalized for three months and was left partially paralyzed.
By February 1988, when Clay, Sr. went on trial for Mixon’s murder, he had been convicted of assault with a weapon in the prior shooting.
At his trial in St. Louis County Circuit Court, prosecutors contended Clay, Sr. came to kill his ex-wife, but was surprised to find an unexpected visitor—Mixon. David Clay, Jr., testified that while he had once said he was 100 percent sure the gunman was his father, he was no longer so sure. He said he was 80 to 90 percent sure and that it was possible the gunman was someone else.
Clara Clay said she never saw the gunman’s face and could not say if it was her ex-husband.
A crime lab analyst testified that the shell casings found in Clay, Sr.’s back yard came from the same gun used to shoot Mixon. The murder weapon was never recovered.
Clay, Sr.’s defense attorney contended the shell casings found in the backyard were planted by the real gunman, who knew where Clay, Sr. lived.
On February 21, 1988, Clay, Sr., was convicted by a jury. He was sentenced to prison for life without parole.
After several years of failed appeals, in 1997, the Missouri Court of Appeals reversed the conviction because Clay, Sr.’s defense lawyer had failed to investigate Clay, Jr.’s identifications of other suspects as the gunman.
In addition, the Court noted that the defense lawyer had failed to call an alibi witness who would have testified that she was on the telephone with Clay, Sr. at about the time of the shooting and that Clay, Sr., was at his home, several miles from where Mixon was killed.
Clay, Sr. went on trial for a second time in March 1999. His attorney, Beverly Beimdiek, an assistant St. Louis County public defender, cast doubt on Clay, Jr.’s identification by pointing out his identifications of two others as the gunman.
The police officer who had collected the shell casings from the scene of the shooting and from Clay, Sr.’s back yard was no longer on the force. He had been fired after being caught stealing from the police evidence locker, which resulted in a cross-examination at Clay, Sr.’s trial that undercut his credibility.
In addition, Clay, Sr.’s lawyer brought in the alibi witness who testified to the telephone call.
On April 1, 1999, Clay, Sr. was acquitted by a jury. He remained imprisoned on the prior conviction until he was later paroled.
– Maurice Possley