48 pages 1 hour read

Jeanine Cummins

A Rip in Heaven

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath (2004) is a true-crime story and memoir by Jeanine Cummins. The book recounts the violent rape and murder of two young women, Julie and Robin Kerry, the author’s cousins, and focuses on the aftermath for their families. Tom Cummins, their cousin who is present during the crimes, is thrown off a bridge into the Mississippi River with the two women but survives. Innocent, he becomes the police’s main suspect after he fails a polygraph test. Tom and his extended family suffer many injustices from both the police and the media before the real killers are finally caught and brought to justice.

The book opens with the Cummins family visiting the Kerry family in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1991. Tom Cummins sneaks out with his cousins, Julie and Robin Kerry, that night to see a poem that Julie spray-painted on the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge. Julie is an aspiring poet, and both she and Robin are passionate activists for peace and equality. At the bridge, they meet four young men, who at first talk with them and hang out amicably. Then, in a sudden change, the men grab them, rape Julie and Robin, and throw all three off the bridge into the churning Mississippi River below. Tom is the only one to survive, finding his way back to the riverbank and to help.

The police interrogate Tom without letting him sleep or take a medical exam. In this state of shock and exhaustion, he fails a polygraph test, which instantly makes him the primary suspect in the case. The police lie to Tom and to his father, eliciting what they consider to be a confession from Tom. While Tom’s “confession” is merely sarcastic, he is booked and spends more than a day in jail, charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Cummins meanwhile narrates the actions and reactions of the victims’ families as the news comes in. They are horrified when the news begins to portray Tom as a perverted killer, although most of the family realizes that this must be a mistake. Tom’s family hires a lawyer to defend him, and he is soon released on a lack of evidence.

A piece of material evidence in the news, a lost flashlight, eventually leads the police to Antonio Richardson, one of the four killers. As the four turn on one another, the police arrest and charge all of them for Julie and Robin’s murder. Three of the cases eventually go to trial, where Tom testifies against Marlin Gray, Reginald Clemons, and Antonio Richardson. All three are convicted of murder and sentenced to execution. The fourth, Daniel Winfrey, takes a plea deal in exchange for his testimony against the other three.

Meanwhile, Richardson’s lawyer creates a national media frenzy around the trial and Richardson’s impending execution. Richardson is painted in the national media as a kid who was villainized in the criminal justice system due to his race as an African American. Such misleading media attention only causes more emotional pain and trauma for the Cummins and Kerry families.

The execution of Richardson is stayed by the US Supreme Court, and Tom eventually learns to let go of his fixation with the killers and of his own guilt. He becomes an attorney and grows up, finally free of the trauma that has tormented him.

 

The book is a true-crime memoir, written by the cousin of Julie and Robin Kerry, that relates the facts of the case, but it does not attempt to do so from an unbiased perspective. Cummins is upfront about her agenda, which is to tell the story of her cousins’ murders from the perspective of their families. Unlike other true-crime stories, A Rip in Heaven is foremost a memorial to the victims, Julie and Robin Kerry, and it is also the story of how their deaths affect their families.

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By Jeanine Cummins