BRANDENBURG, Ky. (AP) — Vickie Howser bought her brother a comfortable bed, decorated a bedroom in her house and planned a menu for a family dinner Thursday night.
She hoped he’d finally walk out of jail Thursday morning, two weeks after a judge vacated his murder conviction in what prosecutors described in 1995 as a satanic ritual killing.
But after more than two decades in prison, her brother, Garr Keith Hardin, and co-defendant Jeffrey Dewayne Clark will remain behind bars at least a little longer.
Though DNA evidence debunked much of what prosecutors presented to the jury 21 years ago, a judge said at a Thursday hearing that he needs time to weigh their request to be released on bail until a new trial date is set. The judge said he will issue a written ruling.
“I was hoping he’d walk out of there today and come home,” Howser said. “I want to cook him a good meal. I want to fatten him up. So much has changed since he’s been in there, everything has changed.”
Hardin and Clark, both now 46, were convicted in 1995 of killing 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford based in part on the prosecution’s contention that a hair found on her body was a “microscopic match” to Hardin. They were sentenced to life in prison.
The Innocence Project fought for years to have the evidence tested for DNA, and the Kentucky Supreme Court granted the request in 2013.
The testing revealed the hair didn’t come from Hardin.
Meade Circuit Judge Bruce T. Butler overturned their convictions last month, finding they were “based on suppositions that we now know to be fundamentally false.”
Warford disappeared on the morning of April 1, 1992, after leaving her home in the south end of Louisville. He body was found three days later across the county line in Meade County’s Dead Horse Hollow. She had been stabbed 11 times.
Prosecutors told the jury in 1995 that blood on a cloth in Hardin’s home was animal blood and a cup was a “chalice” he used as part of a satanic ritual to drink the animal blood to gain standing with Lucifer. The DNA evidence showed the blood was not from an animal. It was Hardin’s blood, matching his testimony at trial that he cut himself on broken glass and used the cloth to wipe his hands.
Butler found there was no evidence Warford’s murder was inspired by satanic worship.
Meade County Commonwealth’s Attorney David Michael Williams told the court Thursday he intends to retry both men as soon as possible and asked that they be denied bail.
The prosecutors’ office for years fought the release of the DNA evidence and Williams has cited Hardin’s confession before a parole board as evidence of his guilt. Hardin’s attorneys and family dismiss the admission as a desperate man hoping to appease the board and get out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Hardin and Clark’s lawyers with the Innocence Project said they invite a new trial to clear their names.
“If the commonwealth wants to proceed with a trial against both of these men on what we perceive to be a very weak case, then tee it up. We’re ready to go,” said Larry Simon, a local attorney working with the Innocence Project.
In addition to the evidence disproved by DNA testing, the case largely hinged on testimony from Mark Handy, then a detective with the Louisville Police Department. He testified that Hardin confessed during an interrogation that he’d grown tired of animal sacrifices and wanted to graduate to humans.
But the judge wrote in his ruling that Handy was found to have lied under oath in a different trial in 1995, just a few weeks before he testified against Hardin and Clark. In that case, defendant Edwin Chandler was convicted of murder and spent eight years in prison before being exonerated. An internal police investigation found Handy should be criminally prosecuted for misconduct and the city paid Chandler a settlement of $8.5 million.
The Louisville Metro Police Department said the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney office is still reviewing the investigation.
Butler wrote that Handy’s history “discredits the integrity of the police investigation.”
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said Hardin and Clark were out on bail before their 1995 trial and never missed a hearing. Both have relatives to live with and should be able to begin rebuilding their lives after losing so many years.
Howser said she never questioned her brother’s innocence. She and her mother fought to see him exonerated for decades. Her mother died last year.
“I never gave up hope, but I’ve had a lot of sad days,” Howser said. “I’m both angry and sad. My emotions right now are all over the place. I could cry, I could scream.”