LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The evidence seemed compelling: a broken chalice, a blood-soaked rag and a single hair on a lifeless body in what prosecutors described as a gruesome human sacrifice to Satan.
It was enough for a jury to convict Jeffrey Dewayne Clark and Garr Keith Hardin at the height of the satanic abuse scare of the 1980s and 1990s, sending them to a Kentucky prison for more than 20 years. But since their 1995 trial, DNA evidence has shown the hair didn't belong to Hardin, and the blood wasn't from a sacrificial ritual but from Hardin cutting himself on the chalice's jagged edge.
On Thursday, Kentucky's highest court vacated Clark and Hardin's convictions and ordered a new trial.
"This is such a glorious day," said Vickie Howser, Hardin's sister. "After 22 years, it is so about time for him to have a decent life. They took his life away from him for something he did not do."
Hardin's attorney, Larry Simon, said he expects Meade County prosecutors to try the men a second time. Meade County Commonwealth's Attorney David Williams did not return a call seeking comment.
"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," said Linda Smith, Clark's attorney and the supervising attorney for the Kentucky Innocence Project.
Just after midnight on April 2, 1992, Rhonda Sue Warford left her home in Louisville and never returned. Authorities found her body three days later about 50 miles away in Meade County. She had been stabbed multiple times "following a close-range, violent struggle" according to the medical examiner.
Warford was dating Hardin at the time, and Clark was one of Hardin's close friends. Warford's mother told police she believed all three were involved in satanism.
During the trial, prosecutors said Hardin and Clark were devil worshippers and they killed Warford as part of a satanic ritual. To support this theory, they showed the jury a broken chalice and blood-soaked rag found in Hardin's bedroom. They said the blood came from an animal that Hardin had sacrificed. And Detective Mark Handy testified that Hardin had told him he "got tired of looking at animals and began to want to do human sacrifices."
The only evidence prosecutors had tying Hardin to the scene was a single hair found on Warford's sweatpants that an expert testified "matched" Hardin. But the science behind that analysis has since been discredited, and DNA analysis years later showed the hair did not come from Hardin.
Also, DNA analysis showed the blood in the rag was Hardin's blood, not an animal that had been sacrificed to Satan. Plus, it was later revealed that Handy "testified falsely under oath" in another trial that resulted in the false murder conviction of another man, who was not exonerated until 2009.
Prosecutors have pointed out that Hardin later confessed to the murder in hearing before the parole board and Clark has confessed to helping Hardin move the body. But the Supreme Court ruled those confessions had little merit because they were "insincere and contrived admissions, which are induced solely by the yearning to be free."
Justice Laurance VanMeter was the lone dissenter in the 6-1 ruling. He wrote that the new evidence is not enough to meet the standard required for a new trial. Under that standard, the new evidence would "with reasonable certainty, have changed the verdict or that it would probably change the result."
Attempts to reach Clark or his relatives were unsuccessful.
Since Hardin's release from prison, Howser said he has been living with her and working as a carpenter. She said he even attended church with her.
"He can tell you the Bible, front and back," she said. "That's a lot more than I could ever do."