Man convicted of killing woman on Garrard farm

January 29, 2004|JIM LOGAN

LANCASTER - A Garrard Circuit Court jury sentenced a Lexington man to 39 years in prison Wednesday night after finding him guilty of murdering a woman and burning her body on a farm.

James T. Clemons, 35, received 34 years for the October 2002 murder of Rhonda Michelle Brown and another five years for tampering with evidence. He will be formally sentenced Feb. 20 by Circuit Judge Hunter Daugherty.

If the judge imposes the sentence set by the jury, Clemons will be eligible for parole in 20 years.

The verdict was something of a victory for Clemons and his defense attorney, Susanne McCollough. Clemons could have received life in prison, but the jury apparently heeded McCollough's plea during the sentencing phase of the trial to impose a year in the penitentiary for each year of Brown's life on the murder charge.

After the guilty verdicts were read, Clemons' mother, Gloria Todd of Frankfort, cried in the front row of the courtroom. Moments later, the Rev. Ronald Miller, Rhonda Brown's brother, took the seat next to Todd and put his arm around her.


Soon other members of Brown's family were comforting Todd. The knot of sobbing grief began to rock gently back and forth.

"Have mercy, Lord," Todd cried.

"Have mercy, Jesus," another in the group replied.

Miller, who leads a ministry in Louisville, later offered his sympathies to Clemons' family. "You hope for the best for your child," he said, nodding toward Clemons. "My heart goes out to him. My heart goes out to the family."

In Wednesday's marathon session, all sympathies lay with Brown's family. In sometimes gruesome testimony, the jury heard of the Louisville woman's killing - how she had been set afire in a burn pile just 34 feet from Clemons' porch and how her corpse had been cruelly impaled by an old metal chair and a plant stalk.

Marcus Brown of Louisville, Rhonda Brown's former husband, called his family "God people" who were holding up well despite Clemons' crime. But it's not been easy, he said. He and Rhonda Brown had three children together.

"He's broke the heart of me and my three children," Brown said, referring the Clemons. "The one thing I wanted to give her was a proper funeral. I can't even do that. Nobody deserves to die like that."

Rhonda Brown's ruined remains were found Oct. 9, 2002, on a farm Clemons had been renting on Fall Lick Road. She was identified through dental records.

KSP, prosecutor had unusual, difficult challenges

From the start, the case provided the Kentucky State Police and Commonwealth's Attorney Thomas Lockridge with unusual and difficult challenges.

According to testimony in the three-day trial, Clemons was able to eliminate virtually all trace of physical evidence connecting him to the crime. Additionally, the condition of Brown's body made it impossible to determine the exact cause of death.

Clemons' own words proved to be his undoing.

The former waiter and concrete worker told his family shortly after the body was found that he had killed a woman and torched her body in a burn pile.

He also wrote a letter to a friend of 18 years, Jeff Marion, apparently asking him to provide alibis. Marion turned the letter over to KSP.

When confronted by detectives about his confessions to his stepfather and others, Clemons insisted "I just made it up" to spite a family that looked down on him.

"You think if I was involved with something like that I'd tell my family about it?" he said in an Oct. 23, 2002, interview led by KSP Detective Van Wright.

At his trial, three family members testified that Clemons had told them about the killing. One said Clemons looked him in the eye and told him, "Her body was crisp."

Clemons, Lockridge told the court Wednesday, had dismissed Brown as a "bar whore." In fact, Brown had spiraled into drugs and prostitution after her divorce. She was arrested for solicitation of sex at least once in Louisville.

In his 2002 interview with Wright, Clemons admitted he had used prostitutes 10 to 15 times and that Brown might have been among them.

"I may have been with this lady at some point in my life, I don't know," he said.

"And she ends up in your yard," Wright replied.

Clemons' use of prostitutes and his connections to Louisville - where he lived with his first wife and had worked until about the time Brown was reported missing - were central to the case against him.

The prosecution maintained that Clemons had picked up Brown, brought her back to his home and killed her.

Proving it beyond a reasonable doubt would not be easy.

There was no physical evidence that Brown had been in Clemons' house or car. The prosecution couldn't show how or when, precisely, she had been killed. The body had burned so thoroughly that the brain and other organs were cinders, useless as clues for investigators.

Maggots used to determine time of murder

In testimony Tuesday, state forensic anthropologist Emily Craig said the age of maggots found on Brown's body showed she had been dead four to seven days - fixing her murder as early as Oct. 2.

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