Nels Moss died Monday of heart disease. He was 73. He was a prosecutor in the city for 30 years, then in St. Charles County, and finally, he did some defense work.
Perhaps because I knew him as a prosecutor, I thought he seemed ill-suited for defense work. A defense attorney has to exhibit some sympathy for sinners, and Moss seldom displayed any. He was a fire-and-brimstone kind of prosecutor.
In fact, there were those who thought he was too zealous. Moss didn’t seem to care. He shrugged off criticism. I wrote a column about him when he left the circuit attorney’s office in 1999. He was all about murder and feuds, I wrote.
“He has feuded with bosses, but mostly he has feuded with judges. He’s either a terrific attorney who knows the law better than most judges and sometimes can’t resist letting them know it, or he’s an arrogant son of a gun and just downright disrespectful.”
Several times when there was an opening on the bench, Moss applied, but he was never selected as one of the three finalists whose names go to the governor.
“I’ve got too many enemies,” he told me. “I’m not saying their complaints are legitimate, but I know they’re out there.”
Still, he was mostly about murder. How many did he prosecute? He didn’t remember. One of the weirdest involved a double murder in which the murderer, Elroy Preston, killed his two roommates after an argument about fried chicken. He then dipped the chicken in their blood before eating it.
During his trial, Preston’s public defenders asked the judge to prohibit the jurors from ordering chicken for lunch. Moss argued they should be able to eat whatever they wanted to eat. The judge agreed.
Preston received a death sentence. Before he could be executed, prison officials notified the governor that Preston did not have the mental capacity to understand the nature of the charges against him. The execution was indefinitely postponed, and Preston died in prison in 2013.
Of course, most of Moss’ cases were more pedestrian. Murders to which the public paid no attention. Moss displayed the same zeal in all of them.
Probably the most notorious case Moss prosecuted was the Chain of Rocks Bridge case. Julie and Robin Kerry had taken a cousin from out of town to the bridge. The next morning, the cousin reported that four men had attacked them. The attackers raped the sisters and threw the sisters and the cousin off the bridge, he said.
The police did not believe him. After an interrogation, the cousin confessed that he had thrown the sisters off the bridge. Almost immediately, he recanted.
Police later arrested four young men for the crime. There was plenty of evidence against the four, but still, Moss had a big problem — his star witness had confessed.
Moss had to get one of the four to testify against his fellow defendants. That presented another problem. The least culpable seemed to be Daniel Winfrey, the lone white defendant. How would it look to give the lone white guy a deal?
Not good, and Moss knew it. But he thought the deal should go to the least culpable, and so he did it. (Each of the four had confessed, and while all the statements were self-serving, all agreed that Winfrey had helped subdue the girls but had not raped them. Nor had he pushed either off the bridge.)
Winfrey got a 30-year sentence. Each of the three remaining defendants — Marlin Gray, Reginald Clemons and Antonio Richardson — had a separate trial. Each got a death sentence. Richardson, who had been 16 at the time of the murders, rejected a deal in which he would have gotten life without the possibility of parole. His sentence was later commuted to life.
Gray was executed. Clemons appealed his conviction and the Missouri Supreme Court appointed a “special master” to hear the appeal. He ruled that the appeal did not establish innocence but did indicate that Moss had suppressed evidence that suggested detectives had beaten Clemons. The court hasn’t made a final determination.
The finding of the “special master” added fuel to the charge that Moss could be overzealous.
I was not one of his critics. As a reporter, I am predisposed to like people who talk to the press. Moss did. Of course, he came from a time in which prosecutors were allowed to talk to us. On the other hand, I doubt he’d have listened to a boss who told him not to discuss his cases. He’d rather have started a feud.
Bill McClellan • 314-340-8143
@Bill_McClellan on Twitter
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