FRANKFORT, Ky. – For more than 20 years, two Kentucky men were in prison because a jury said they killed a woman to curry favor with the devil as part of a satanic ritual.
But new evidence, including DNA and revelations that could discredit a key witness, prompted a judge to release Jeffrey Dewayne Clark and Garr Keith Hardin from prison last year and order them a new trial. Now Kentucky's highest court is reviewing that decision, considering whether the judge abused his authority by overturning the men's convictions in a case that grabbed national attention amid the satanic abuse scare of the 1980s and 1990s.
Thursday, Kentucky's Supreme Court heard arguments from the state Attorney General's office about why Clark and Hardin should be sent back to prison without a new trial.
Key pieces of evidence from the 1995 trial include a single hair found on victim Rhonda Warford's sweatpants that an expert at the time said was similar to the hair of Hardin, her former boyfriend. Former Louisville Metro Police Detective Mark Handy said Hardin told him he worshipped Satan and was interested in sacrificing people. And police found a blood-stained cloth with what they called a "chalice" in Hardin's bedroom, which they said was evidence that he killed animals and drank their blood as part of his worship of Satan.
But since then, DNA analysis shows the hair does not belong to Hardin. The blood on the cloth was actually Hardin's blood, not an animal. And Handy was later found to have lied under oath about a different murder case, which defense attorneys say question his credibility.
Thursday, Assistant Attorney General Perry Ryan tried to downplay the role that evidence played in the convictions, saying the significance of the hair was "completely overblown." He said prosecutors relied more on the testimony of witnesses, including an alleged jailhouse confession. And since Hardin and Clark were convicted, both have confessed to the crime in separate parole hearings.
"Those parole board confessions are pretty damning," Justice Bill Cunningham said. "I'm not sure a jury would blow them off as not being credible."
But attorneys for Hardin and Clark say inmates are pressured to confess to crimes during parole board hearings in order to improve their chances of being released. Seema Saifee, an attorney with the Innocence Project, said of the 350 men and women across the country who have been exonerated 28 percent of those cases involved false confessions.
One case included Edwin Chandler, a Kentucky man who spent eight years in prison before being exonerated. An internal investigation found the detective in that case, who was also the detective in Hardin and Clark's case, coerced Chandler into confessing.
"Innocent confess to crimes they did not commit all the time, especially when under pressure to do so," Saifee said. "Kentucky courts have recognized DNA is more powerful than an unlawful confession."
Saifee and attorney Amy Staples focused more on the DNA evidence. They said prosecutors relied on discredited science to convince the jury the hair belonged to Hardin so they could tie him to the crime scene. And they were confident they could get most of Handy's testimony thrown out of a new trial, which would make it harder for the state to prove a motive.
Justice Laurance VanMeter noted other witnesses testified about satanic influences, and Hardin himself said he dabbled in the practice but said he had lost interest by the time Warford was killed. Several justices were less interested in the specifics of the new evidence, focusing instead on any errors the trial judge made in ordering a new trial.
Ryan said the legal standard for ordering a new trial means new evidence shows a jury would "probably" reach a different verdict. He said the new evidence here does not meet that standard, because it shows a different verdict would be "possible," but not "probable."
Staples said proving the judge made a mistake was a burden the prosecutors could not meet.