Citing a prosecutor’s duty to do justice, the Kentucky Attorney General’s office Thursday moved to dismiss charges against two men who spent more than 20 years behind bars for a murder falsely linked to Satanism.
The motion will finally end the ordeal of Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark, who were convicted in 1995 of killing Rhonda Sue Warford and dumping her body in a field in Meade County.
The attorney general’s office says the pair were convicted using defective evidence and possibly perjured testimony from a police officer.
Clark’s lawyer, Linda Smith, supervising attorney for the Kentucky Innocence Project, said he cried when she told him the news.
“He was beyond happy,” she said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
The attorney’s office said in its motion that when the defendants were tried 23 years ago, the prosecution presented physical evidence and testimony from which “a reasonable jury” could find the defendants guilty.
But the office said “subsequent discoveries about the reliability of these witnesses, along with the development of more reliable scientific testing, leave the commonwealth to conclude that there is no longer sufficient evidence by which a reasonable jury could conclude the defendants are, in fact, guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The Attorney General’s constitutional obligation is to adhere to its mandate to do justice,” says the 12-page motion filed by Assistant Attorneys General Jon Heck and Jeffrey Prather. “Therefore the Commonwealth does hereby motion this Court to dismiss.”
In a statement, the office said it would continue to investigate Warford’s murder.
Meade Circuit Court Judge Brian T. Butler threw out the convictions in 2016, saying there was no credible evidence that Warford’s murder was inspired by satanic worship, as the prosecution contended in 1995.
But the Meade commonwealth’s attorney’s office elected to retry them, and persuaded a grand jury to hand up new indictments for perjury and kidnapping.
Butler last month dismissed those additional charges as vindictive, and the attorney general’s office, which took control of the case last fall, said it would review the case.
“Preventing wrongful convictions in the future is something everyone should be on board with,” she said. “It shouldn’t be controversial to want to end this kind of suffering. We are only half done.”
In the motion to dismiss, the attorney general said suspicion immediately fell on the men after Warford was found stabbed to death because Hardin was her boyfriend.
Both also were admittedly interested in Satanism, according to the motion.
They both gave recorded statements denying involvement, but then-Louisville police Detective Mark Handy alleged that Hardin had said he’d participated in animal sacrifice and wanted to sacrifice a human.
“This alleged confession was used to great effect during the trial,” the motion says.
Prosecutors also said a broken chalice found with a bloody rag in Hardin’s home supported the belief that Hardin had sacrificed animals.
There was limited forensic evidence tying the defendant to the murder, but the commonwealth’s forensic examiner testified that a hair on Warford’s sweatpants was similar to Hardin’s hair. And a jailhouse informant testified that Clark twice admitted to the murder.
“Taken as a whole, it was reasonable for the jury to convict both men,” Heck and Prather say in their motion.
But over the years, the evidence collapsed.
The Kentucky Supreme Court, over the objection of local prosecutors and the attorney general’s office, allowed post-conviction DNA testing that showed the hair found on Warford did not match either defendant.
The testing also showed blood on the rag was Hardin’s, as he claimed all along.
Handy was investigated for falsifying evidence that led to the wrongful conviction of Edwin Chandler in another murder case, and that Handy ascribed to Chandler facts he could not have possibly known.
“Put bluntly, the commonwealth cannot put credibility into an unrecorded statement taken by a detective who has a documented history of fabricating details of a murder case,” the motion says.
The assistant attorney general also noted that in a new trial jurors would learn about Handy’s handling of the Chandler case, and that Chandler was falsely imprisoned for almost 10 years largely because of Handy’s testimony.
The city paid $8.5 million to settle Chandler’s lawsuit for wrongful arrest and imprisonment. A former Louisville police sergeant, Denny Butler, recommended that Handy be prosecuted for perjury. He never was, and is now a sergeant in the Jefferson County sheriff’s office.
The motion also said Hardin never confessed to the jailhouse informant, who had offered perjured testimony against another inmate.
Former commonwealth’s attorney Kenton Smith, who prosecuted the case, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The current commonwealth’s attorney, David M. Williams, said last month that he still wanted Clark and Hardin retried for the murder, but “that’s not my call now.”
He said he gave up the case last fall to the attorney general’s office because he was swamped with other work.
Terry Sebastian, a spokesman for that office, said Williams sought the additional indictments that Butler dismissed as vindictive. But the judge singled out an assistant attorney general, Perry Ryan, who has worked on the prosecution for 20 years. He was recently removed him from the case.