In the mid-90s, Jeffrey Clark and Garr Keith Hardin were convicted of the murder of nineteen-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford. They were accused of having killed her as part of a satanic sacrifice and sentenced to life in prison.
Except they didn’t.
And they each paid a heavy price of twenty-one years in prison for a wrongful conviction.
How could such an unfair case have happened?
Why were Clark and Hardin convicted?
The prosecution case revolved around:
- the testimony of a prison informant and the lead investigator of the case,
- the presence of hairs on the victim falsely attributed to Hardin,
- and charges of satanic worship and animal sacrifice that made it easy for the jury to see the couple as capable of murder.
Officers became so obsessed with Clark and Hardin that they ignored other leads, such as the testimony of another man who confessed to the murder.
Ultimately, Clark and Hardin will spend just over two decades in prison before a team from Project Innocence convinces the Kentucky Supreme Court to perform DNA testing on the hair used to place Hardin – and, by extension. , Clark – at the scene. The hair has been proven to belong to someone else. These findings, in addition to evidence that the lead detective showed a tendency to lie about witness confessions, led to their release in 2016.
However, their ordeal was not over.
The two were re-charged, with Clark being charged with perjury for confessing to the murder in order to secure parole. While these accusations were also dismissed, their story is important and relevant to us today for two reasons.
Do not prevent the Holy Spirit
What happened to Clark and Hardin is much more common than you might think.
As David Leonhardt reports, some studies estimate that at least 4.1% of those condemned to death deserve to be exonerated, and sexual assault cases resulted in wrongful convictions more than 10 percent of the time.
For many of those wrongly convicted, the quickest path to freedom is to lie and admit something they haven’t done. Such confessions are often the first step towards obtaining parole, and inmates are generally unable to obtain their release without showing contrition, regardless of their guilt.
Unless you’ve been convicted of a crime you didn’t commit, it can be difficult to fully understand and empathize with those who did.
The same principle applies to other aspects of our life.
If you’ve never had cancer, it’s hard to understand what someone is going through with this diagnosis. If you’ve never lost a child, it’s hard to know how to serve those who have lost them. If you’ve never lived in poverty or faced the loss of a job, it’s hard to empathize with those going through such circumstances.
But the first step in doing so is to recognize this fact and choose to rely instead on the Holy Ghost to help us listen well and respond according to His guidance rather than ours. When we talk about suffering from our own wisdom or perceived experience rather than relying on the Lord to tell us what to say, we are likely to be more of a hindrance than a help to those in need.
Job’s friends in the Bible, for example, are regularly and rightly viewed as examples of what not do when someone around us is in pain. But all too often we slip into the same patterns.
The second lesson is that you don’t have to agree with someone, or even love them, to want them to be treated fairly.
While Hardin and Clark were not guilty of murder, numerous reports emerged during the trial about their behavior in raising serious red flags. Police recovered various occult-related items from Hardin’s home during their investigation. The two men have been accused by several people of having performed or discussed animal sacrifices as part of satanic rituals. A friend of Warford’s testified that during a period when Warford mistakenly believed she might be pregnant, Hardin threatened to kill her and the baby if it was true.
It is not known how accurate these claims are, but reports suggest that, at least at the time of the trial, Hardin and Clark were not role models. None of this changes the fact, however, that both men were treated unfairly and deprived of twenty-one years of liberty.
As Christians, one of the most important witnesses we can have of our culture is to advocate on behalf of those with whom we disagree when they are not treated fairly. After all, our ultimate allegiance and responsibility is due to God rather than other people.
We should be among the main proponents of equality and justice in our culture because these things matter to our Lord, and he says they should matter to us.
Remember, such were you
So the next time you are tempted to ignore that someone is being treated badly because you disagree with them on a particular issue or because they live in opposition to the truth of God, take a moment to reflect on what our life would be like if God took the same approach with us. Then ask God to help you keep this perspective in mind throughout your day.
In this world, we are constantly surrounded by people who think, act and believe differently from us. But we don’t need to go along with people to do our part to make sure they are treated fairly.
Such an approach will seldom be easy, and doing it well requires both empathy and an understanding of what God has done for us. Yet this is the example our Lord set throughout His ministry and the standard by which each of us will be measured as we seek to represent Jesus to the lost.
How well will you measure yourself today?