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Innocence Project and Weil Secure Victory for Man Wrongfully Convicted of Murder

Weil, in partnership with the Innocence Project, secured a milestone victory for Garr Keith Hardin, a pro bono client who served more than 20 years of a life sentence for a crime he did not commit. On February 26, 2018, Meade County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Butler granted the Kentucky Attorney General’s motion to dismiss the 1995 murder convictions of Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark based on DNA testing and evidence of police misconduct.

Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Clark were convicted in 1995 of fatally stabbing 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford and dumping her body in a field locally referred to as Dead Horse Hollow. At trial, the prosecution’s main “evidence” was its claim that Hardin and Clark committed the 1992 murder as part of a Satanic sacrifice – this was despite the fact that the state’s own expert acknowledged that nothing about the crime was consistent with a Satanic ritual sacrifice.

A microscopic hair expert claimed that a hair found on the sweatpants worn by the victim at the time of her death “matched” to Hardin. This was the only physical evidence linking the men to the crime or crime scene. In fact, hairs recovered from the victim’s hand did not match either Hardin or Clark.

At trial, the state relied on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who claimed that Clark confessed to the crime. In 1995, shortly after Hardin and Clark’s convictions, a letter surfaced revealing that the jailhouse informant attempted to solicit another inmate to fabricate testimony against Hardin and Clark to receive a reduced sentence. Shortly after the verdict, Hardin and Clark moved for a new trial based on this letter proving that the jailhouse informant committed perjury. However, the 1995 trial court refused to vacate their convictions, ruling that the new evidence would not have changed the outcome.

The state also claimed a bloody cloth and broken glass recovered from Hardin’s home supported its theory that the crime was motivated by Satanic sacrifice. The prosecution claimed that the blood on the cloth was deposited during a ritual animal sacrifice and the glass was a “chalice” from which Hardin drank the blood of the animals he sacrificed for Satan. At trial, Hardin testified that the blood on the cloth was his own blood, caused by cutting himself on the glass. The amount of blood was insufficient for DNA testing at the time of trial.

To connect the blood-stained cloth to the state’s theory, prosecutors relied on the sworn testimony of Detective Mark Handy. Handy testified that Hardin told him that he killed animals as a form of Satanic ritual and “got tired of looking at animals and began to want to do human sacrifices.” Hardin denied ever killing animals or ever making these statements. The two men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In moving to dismiss the indictments, the Attorney General acknowledges that Det. Handy’s claim that Hardin stated that he wanted to commit human sacrifices is no longer credible. The motion acknowledges that Handy has been investigated for falsifying the confession of Edwin Chandler, who served 10 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and concludes, “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 in his investigative summaries.” 

The Innocence Project and the Kentucky Innocence Project, representing Jeffrey Clark, moved for DNA testing in 2009. The trial court denied the request. After years of appeals, in 2013, the Kentucky Supreme Court granted testing and ruled that it was “mystified, if not amazed, that the Commonwealth has such little interest” in the possibility that DNA testing might yield exculpatory results. DNA testing was conducted on the hair on the victim’s sweatpants that the state’s analyst previously claimed “matched” to Hardin. The hair conclusively did not come from Hardin or Clark, disproving a significant part of the state’s case against the men. DNA testing was also performed on the blood on the cloth that the prosecution claimed was deposited during a Satanic animal sacrifice. The testing revealed that the blood was in fact Hardin’s own blood, as he truthfully testified at trial.

Based on the DNA evidence and the new evidence that Det. Handy was recommended for a criminal investigation for his misconduct in another wrongful conviction case, Meade County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Butler vacated Hardin’s and Clark’s convictions in July 2016 and later released them on bail. The prosecution appealed the court’s decision which went back to the Supreme Court of Kentucky, which affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision to vacate the convictions.  

Shortly after the men were granted a new trial, the Commonwealth indicted the men on new charges of kidnapping, which the state believed would have enabled the prosecution to seek the death penalty, and perjury, because the men, after wrongly serving years in prison for the crime, made incriminating statements to the parole board in the hope of being released. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the new indictments on the basis of vindictive prosecution, and the Circuit Court granted the motion on January 19, 2018.

The Attorney General’s office, which took over the case last fall, agreed to reinvestigate the case, resulting in today’s motion to dismiss the indictments, in which the Office of the Attorney General stated that its “Constitutional obligation is to adhere to its mandate to do justice.” 

The Weil team included partner Holly Loiseau, and associates Eileen Citron, Kaj Rozga, Dani Kirsztajn, Taylor Dougherty, Rene Mai, Samuel Zeitlin, and Megan Richardson.