Supreme Court of Kentucky Affirms Lower Court Decision Vacating Murder Convictions of Two Men based on New DNA Evidence
08.24.17 By Innocence Staff
(August 24, 2017 – Louisville, KY) Today the Supreme Court of Kentucky issued a published decision affirming a lower court decision vacating the 1995 murder convictions of Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark based on new DNA and evidence of police misconduct pointing to their innocence. The two men served more than 20 years of a life sentence for the crimes before they were released in 2016.
“We applaud the Kentucky Supreme Court for recognizing the many flaws in the original prosecution of Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark,” said Linda Smith, supervising attorney of the Kentucky Innocence Project. “We hope this decision will persuade Commonwealth’s Attorney David Williams to realize that this case was based on nothing more than far reaching conjecture that has now been completely discredited by DNA evidence and should be dismissed once and for all.”
Seema Saifee, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, added, “Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark have been fighting this injustice for more than 20 years now. There is no credible evidence connecting them to this crime, and we hope today’s decision will finally bring this injustice to an end.”
Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Clark were convicted in 1995 of fatally stabbing 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford and dumping her body in a field locally referred to as Dead Horse Hollow. At trial, the prosecution’s main “evidence” was its claim that Hardin and Clark committed the 1992 murder as part of a Satanic sacrifice – this was despite the fact that the state’s own expert acknowledged that nothing about the crime was consistent with a Satanic ritual sacrifice.
A microscopic hair expert claimed that a hair found on the sweatpants worn by the victim at the time of her death “matched” to Hardin. This was the only physical evidence linking the men to the crime or crime scene. In fact, hairs recovered in the victim’s hand did not match either Hardin or Clark.
The state relied on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Clark confessed to the crime. In 1995, shortly after Hardin’s and Clark’s convictions, a letter surfaced revealing that the jailhouse informant attempted to solicit another inmate to fabricate testimony against Hardin and Clark to receive a reduced sentence. Hardin and Clark moved for a new trial based on this letter to prove that the jailhouse informant committed perjury. However, the trial court refused to vacate their convictions, ruling that the new evidence would not have changed the outcome.
The state also claimed a bloody cloth and broken glass recovered from Hardin’s home supported its theory that the crime was motivated by Satanic sacrifice. The prosecution claimed that the blood on the cloth was deposited during a ritual animal sacrifice and the glass was a “chalice” from which Hardin drank the blood of the animals he sacrificed for Satan. At trial, Hardin testified that the blood on the cloth was his own blood, caused by cutting himself on the glass. The amount of blood was insufficient for DNA testing at the time of trial.
To connect the blood-stained cloth to the state’s theory, prosecutors relied on the sworn testimony of Louisville Metro Police Detective Mark Handy. Detective Handy testified that Hardin told him that he killed animals as a form of Satanic ritual and “got tired of looking at animals and began to want to do human sacrifices.” Hardin denied ever killing animals or ever making these statements. The two men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Innocence Project and the Kentucky Innocence Project moved for DNA testing in 2009. The trial court denied the request. After years of appeals, in 2013, the Kentucky Supreme Court granted testing and ruled that it was “mystified, if not amazed, that the Commonwealth has such little interest” in the possibility that DNA testing might yield exculpatory results.
DNA testing was conducted on the hair on the victim’s sweatpants that the state’s analyst previously claimed “matched” to Hardin. The hair conclusively did not come from Hardin or Clark, disproving a significant part of the state’s case against the men. DNA testing was also performed on the bloody cloth that the prosecution claimed was deposited during a Satanic animal sacrifice. The testing revealed that the blood was Hardin’s, as he truthfully testified at trial.
As the court noted in its decision today, Handy, who attributed incriminating statements against Hardin and Clark, lied under oath in another unrelated high profile murder case in Louisville “just several weeks before he testified at Appellees’ [Hardin’s and Clark’s] trial. The defendant in that 1993 case, Edwin Chandler, was wrongly convicted of murder based at least in part on a confession that Handy falsely attributed to him. Chandler was exonerated in 2009 due to newly discovered forensic evidence. Louisville Metro Police Sergeant Denver Butler recommended that Handy be criminally investigated for his conduct in that case.”
Based on this new evidence, a Meade County Circuit Court vacated Hardin’s and Clark’s convictions in July 2016 and later released them on bail. The prosecution appealed the court’s decision which went back to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, which today affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision to vacate the convictions.
In reaching its decision, Kentucky’s highest court acknowledged the powerful DNA evidence pointing to the men’s innocence and disproving the prosecution’s unsubstantiated theory of satanic worship. Despite their innocence, the men, in an effort to be released from a life sentence, had previously made false statements to the parole board admitting guilt to the crime. The court also rejected the prosecution’s claims that the men were not entitled to relief based on these statements. The court ruled: “[W]e see little merit in insincere and contrived admissions, which are induced solely by the yearning to be free.”
The case now goes back to the Meade County Circuit Court where the prosecution must now decide whether or not to retry the men. Hardin is represented by the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law, in addition to Larry Simon, Esq. of Louisville, and Clark is represented by the Kentucky Innocence Project and the Exoneration Project. A copy of today’s decision is available here.
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