Kentucky Prosecutors Would Rather Kill You Than Admit They Are Wrong
January 10, 2017 (Fault Lines) – The story is almost a cliché. Kentucky men Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark were convicted in 1995 for the murder of Rhonda Sue Warford. Highly suspect circumstantial evidence, questionable forensics, jailhouse snitch testimony, a lying cop. Even Satanic panic. All the usual suspects for a wrongful conviction.
After a series of judges have been pretty clear this conviction is bunk, there seems to be one party not getting it. Take a wild guess who?
Not only wasn’t the murder for which they had served 21 years behind bars “Satanically” inspired — as prosecutors claimed decades ago — but the defendants also were convicted “based on suppositions that we now know to be fundamentally false,” Meade Circuit Judge Bruce Butler held.
Despite his emphatic finding that newly available DNA testing showed the commonwealth got it wrong in the 1995 trial, the Meade commonwealth’s attorney and the attorney general’s office are now doubling down by charging Hardin and Clark with new offenses for which they could be sentenced to death.
Interesting response to making a mistake. Kill them.
On April 1, 1992, Rhonda Warford went missing near Louisville, Kentucky. Her body was found a few days later. She had been stabbed after a violent struggle. Her boyfriend, Hardin, and his friend, Clark, were almost immediately suspected. They were involved in Satanism, which made them perfect scapegoats.
A hair found on the victim was similar to Hardin’s hair. While some might suspect a man’s hair would be innocently found on a girl he was dating, the police and prosecutors in this case drew no such connection. Instead, they assumed the girl was killed in a Satanic ritual and it was off to trial. A jailhouse snitch sealed the deal with the typical “he confessed to me while we were in jail together” testimony. And with that, a jury convicted the men and they were sentenced to life in prison. Because, apparently, Satan.
After decades in prison, the Innocence Project became involved and asked the Kentucky courts for permission to do additional DNA testing. Newer technology was available. And another man had confessed to the crime. But, of course, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office (that’s what they call prosecutors in Kentucky) fought the request. A friendly local court, not surprisingly, sided with prosecutors and ruled that nobody needed to test any DNA. It held that matching the hair to somebody else wouldn’t really prove somebody else did it, because…well, because local courts are here to back up local prosecutors.
State supreme courts are typically a more gilded version of a rubber stamp for the government, so most defendants need not hold their breath waiting for an appellate court to rescue them. But the Kentucky Supreme Court actually did the right thing and ordered the DNA testing. Even more impressively, it had some rarely-heard harsh words for the prosecutors in this case.
First of all, we are mystified, if not amazed, that the Commonwealth has such little interest in the possibility that DNA testing might lead to the prosecution and conviction of a guilty person heretofore uncharged and now at large upon the Commonwealth.
Even better, the Kentucky Supreme Court sent a rather clear message to prosecutors about their respective roles in the criminal justice system.
Lastly, we proclaim that evidence admitted into criminal trials in this state belongs to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It does not belong to the Commonwealth’s Attorney. The latter is charged with the duty to preserve and protect the integrity of the evidence, not to hoard it.
The case was sent back to the trial court to set up a procedure for testing the DNA evidence. Not surprisingly, the hair was not a match. The one piece of physical evidence holding up the house of cards against Hardin and Clark fell away. And so did the case against the men. This time the trial court got it right.
A Meade Circuit judge has found there was no “credible evidence” that the murder of Rhonda Sue Warford, a Louisville woman whose body was dumped in a field, was motivated by Satanic worship.
Circuit Judge Bruce T. Butler also said the newly available DNA testing shows that prosecutors and police got it wrong in the 1995 trial of Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark when they said a hair found on Warford’s sweatpants was a “microscopic match” with Hardin.
“This court is confronted with the stark reality that Mr. Hardin and Mr. Clark were convicted based on suppositions that we now know to be fundamentally false,” Butler wrote in a 24-page opinion issued Thursday.
For a court to so directly impugn a conviction, clearly there is little question these men should not have been convicted. Seems like even the hardest-hearted prosecutor would see the error and seek justice.
Williams, who opposed the DNA test, says he wants to retry both men and has filed a notice he will appeal the judge’s order.
Williams’ predecessor, Kenton Smith, was surprised that a court would overturn a conviction based on incorrect assumptions and faulty evidence.
“I think the first jury got the case correct and the next one will, too. However the situation comes out, we have the best system of justice in the world, and I respect it.”
Well, at least it will be respected as long as it results in a conviction. Anything else is clearly not, in fact, worthy of respect.
Williams is intent on teaching these men a lesson, forcing them to literally bet their life on a new trial.
Neither defendant faced the death penalty in the 1995 trial.
But the new indictment adds kidnapping, a capital offense when the victim is not released alive. Hardin and Clark are charged with unlawfully restraining Warfield, one of the definitions of kidnapping.
Wrongful convictions are being discovered more and more often. While their existence is unfortunate, their discovery at least gives us some hope we are moving the criminal justice system in the right direction.
On the other hand, prosecutors like Williams and his cohorts should give us pause. Confronted with clear evidence of a mistake, the least they could do is allow it to be fixed. Instead, they file capital charges and act like petulant children.
A prosecutor’s job is to seek justice. So when justice slaps you in the face, whipping out the death penalty doesn’t sound like a very just result.