LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Two Kentucky men convicted of killing a woman in 1992 in what prosecutors said was part of a satanic ritual can have unidentified hairs found at the scene tested for DNA, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The high court ruled that the tests are warranted because they were not available at the time 43-year-old Garr Keith Hardin and 42-year-old Jeffrey Dewayne Clark were convicted. Justice Bill Cunningham wrote that the two were convicted "based upon highly circumstantial evidence."
Cunningham concluded that testing should go forward because of the possibility that a third person was either involved or actually killed 19-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford.
"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," Cunningham wrote.
The justices ruled that the trial court shall set standards for how and where the DNA tests take place and how the testing will be monitored.
The Innocence Project, a New York-based group that works with inmates to obtain DNA testing, started reinvestigating Warford's death at the behest of Hardin and Clark, each of whom is serving a life sentence in prison.
Warford disappeared early on the morning of April 2, 1992, after telling her mother she was going out. Her mother, Mary Warford, called Louisville police to report her missing when the teen didn't return home.
Investigators found Warford's body, face down, clad in white canvas tennis shoes, red sweat pants, a dark blue shirt and a multicolored jacket, three days later in "Dead Horse Holler," a rural section of Meade County about 45 miles west of Louisville. An autopsy showed Warford had been stabbed multiple times. She had stab wounds on her hands, which prosecutors theorized were defensive injuries sustained in trying to fight off the attack.
A search turned up occult-related items and documents and knives at the homes of Hardin and Clark. Both men also told detectives that they had taken part in satanic worship either around the time of the slaying or in the past. Hardin told police detectives on April 7, 1992, that he had a "vision" that Warford, wearing red clothes, had been killed in a field. Prosecutors said Clark twice confessed to a fellow jail inmate that he killed Warford.
Hardin and Clark said a third person admitted to killing Warford shortly after her body was found and unidentified hairs from the scene would match him. If the hairs don't, attorneys for the inmates said, they could be compared to DNA in databases held by Kentucky and the federal government.
The person considered a suspect by Hardin and Clark's attorneys has never been charged in the case. The person is currently on probation and living near Meade County.
Kentucky prosecutors said DNA testing won't exonerate the two convicted men, though it might point to a third person being involved.
Cunningham noted that the physical evidence linking Hardin and Clark amounted to a fingerprint in Clark's car and one hair deemed similar to Hardin's found on Warford's sweatpants.
"However, this evidence was far from conclusive of the guilty of either appellant, as the victim was dating Hardin and it was undisputed that she had been in Clark's car in the past," Cunningham wrote.
At the time Hardin and Clark's appeal, Kentucky's DNA testing law applied only to death row inmates. Lawmakers expanded the law this year to allow anyone convicted of a violent felony to petition for DNA testing.
Forty-eight states have post-conviction DNA testing laws. Some, such as Colorado, allow anyone convicted of a felony to seek testing while others limit the crimes that qualify for testing. Maryland and Washington state, for example, limit the eligible crimes to murder or sexual offenses.
Oklahoma and Massachusetts have no laws allowing post-conviction access to DNA testing.
Follow Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere on Twitter: http://twitter.com/BBarrouquereAP