LOUISVILLE, Ky. – When Rhonda Sue Warford died in a rural field near Brandenburg, she had multiple stab wounds to her chest, back and neck, including one that destroyed her brain stem, and two gray hairs clenched in her right hand.
Two decades later, those hairs are at the center of a legal battle over DNA testing that appellate attorneys hope will upend the convictions of two men serving life in prison for Warford's murder.
The Innocence Project, a New York-based group that works with inmates to obtain DNA testing, is reinvestigating the murder of Warford, a 19-year-old from Louisville who died in 1992 in what prosecutors called a satanic ritual murder. The legal fight has made its way to the Kentucky Supreme Court, which is weighing whether to hear the appeal of 42-year-old Garr Keith Hardin and 41-year-old Jeffrey Dewayne Clark's and order DNA testing on the hairs.
Their case is a challenge to the scope of Kentucky's post-conviction DNA testing law, which applies only to death row inmates and is considered by defense attorneys to be among the weakest in the country. Kentucky legislators are also considering a bill that would allow more inmates access to DNA testing of evidence.
The utility of testing the hairs is a point of contention between prosecutors, who say the tests won't help Hardin and Clark, and the Innocence Project, which says tests matching someone else will clear their clients.
In briefs filed with the Kentucky Supreme Court, Innocence Project attorney Jason Kreag said test results on the hairs could match an alternate suspect and definitively point to someone other than Hardin and Clark as the killer.
"Tragically, in many exoneration cases, the actual perpetrator has gone on to commit additional crimes while the wrong person served time in prison," Kreag said in a letter to the Kentucky Attorney General's Office.
Kentucky prosecutors oppose the testing. They say it won't exonerate the two convicted men, though it might point to a third person being involved.
"The evidence in the record is enough to sustain any convictions," said Assistant Attorney General Perry Ryan, who is handling the appeal.
Kreag declined to comment to The Associated Press, citing the ongoing investigation and legal proceedings. Warford's family declined to discuss the case.
Forty-eight states have post-conviction DNA testing laws. Some, such as Colorado, allow anyone convicted of a felony to seek testing while others limit the crimes that qualify for testing. Maryland and Washington state, for example, limit the eligible crimes to murder or sexual offenses.
Oklahoma and Massachusetts have no laws allowing post-conviction access to DNA testing.
At least three people in Kentucky have reached agreements with prosecutors for post-conviction DNA testing and left prison exonerated, but the testing didn't come under Kentucky's access law. Under that law, enacted in 2001, only death row inmates may petition a court to gain access to evidence and have it tested.
The case of Hardin and Clark has its roots in the on-again, off-again relationship between Warford and Hardin. They dated for a while, with sometimes volatile results.
A witness at Hardin's trial, Hope Jaggers, said Warford told Hardin she was pregnant. Hardin responded by saying "if you are pregnant, I will kill you and that ... baby," Jaggers testified in 1995.
Warford disappeared early on the morning of April 2, 1992, after telling her mother she was going out. Her mother, Mary Warford, called Louisville police to report her missing when the teen didn't return home.
Investigators found Warford's body, face down, clad in white canvas tennis shoes, red sweat pants, a dark blue shirt and a multicolored jacket, three days later in "Dead Horse Holler," a rural section of Meade County about 45 miles west of Louisville. An autopsy showed Warford had been stabbed multiple times. She had stab wounds on her hands, which prosecutors theorized were defensive injuries sustained in trying to fight off the attack.
A medical examiner found a tattoo of an inverted cross on Warford's left clavicle, as well as a hair on her sweat pants. DNA testing was unavailable, but the examiner called the hair similar to Hardin's. Detectives found Warford's fingerprint in Clark's car, even though he said Warford had not been in the vehicle since December 1991.
A search turned up occult-related items and documents and knives at the homes of Hardin and Clark. Both men also told detectives that they had taken part in Satanic worship either around the time of the slaying or in the past. Hardin told police detectives on April 7, 1992, that he had a "vision" that Warford, wearing red clothes, had been killed in a field. Prosecutors said Clark twice confessed to a fellow jail inmate that he killed Warford.
Prosecutors took a mix of physical and circumstantial evidence to trial, even telling jurors that the gray hairs were found but couldn't be matched to anyone suspected in Warford's death. Jurors convicted both men of first-degree murder, but declined to impose a death sentence.
In 2009, The Innocence Project began the push for DNA testing of the gray hairs, but prosecutors opposed the request.
Meade County Circuit Judge Sam Monarch rejected testing in January 2010, ruling that matching the evidence to a third party wouldn't exonerate Hardin and Clark and would only implicate a third party.
"Assuming that DNA analysis would confirm what was known prior to the time of trial, this would not be anything new," Monarch wrote.
Since then attorneys for Hardin and Clark have focused on another man, identified in some court records as "John Doe," as an alternate suspect. They say he is the source of the gray hairs. The defense attorneys said they have obtained DNA from "John Doe" to test, should the court grant DNA testing in the case.
Prosecutors are relying on Kentucky's high court to agree with Monarch's logic in rejecting the testing — that there's nothing new about the hairs that could help Hardin and Clark.
"The jury has already considered the fact that the gray hairs could not be tied to Mr. Clark, Mr. Hardin or Ms. Warford and found that this fact did not create a reasonable doubt," Monarch wrote.
Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere is on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP