When innocent men have to lie to be free: Two lessons from a fascinating case

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When innocent men have to lie to be free: Two lessons from a fascinating case

December 8, 2021 - Dr. Ryan Denison

© fotokitas/stock.adobe.com

© fotokitas/stock.adobe.com

In the mid-1990s, Jeffrey Clark and Garr Keith Hardin were convicted of murdering nineteen-year-old Rhonda Sue Warford. They were accused of killing her as part of a satanic sacrifice and sentenced to life in prison.

Except they didn’t do it.

And they each paid the steep price of twenty-one years in prison under a wrongful conviction.

How could such an unjust case have happened?

Why were Clark and Hardin found guilty? 

The prosecution’s case revolved around: 

  • the testimonies of a jailhouse informant and the case’s lead detective,
  • the presence of hairs on the victim that were falsely attributed to Hardin,
  • and accusations of satanic worship and animal sacrifices that made it easy for the jury to see the pair as capable of murder. 

Officers became so fixated on Clark and Hardin that they ignored other leads, such as testimony regarding another man—who had confessed to the murder. 

Ultimately, Clark and Hardin would spend a little more than two decades in prison before a team from the Innocence Project convinced the Kentucky Supreme Court to run DNA testing on the hairs used to place Hardin—and, by extension, Clark—at the scene. The hairs were proven to belong to someone else. Those findings, in addition to evidence that the lead detective exhibited a pattern of lying about witness confessions, led to their release in 2016.

However, their ordeal wasn’t over. 

The two were reindicted, with Clark accused of perjury for confessing to the murder in an attempt to get parole. While those charges were eventually dismissed as well, their story is important and relevant for us today for two reasons. 

Don’t hinder the Holy Spirit

What happened to Clark and Hardin is far more common than you might think. 

As David Leonhardt reports, some studies estimate that at least 4.1 percent of death row inmates deserve to be exonerated, and sexual assault cases have been found to result in a wrongful conviction more than 10 percent of the time. 

For many who are wrongly convicted, the fastest path to freedom is to lie and admit to something they didn’t do. Such confessions are often the first step toward obtaining parole, and prisoners are typically unable to attain their release without showing contrition, regardless of their guilt. 

Unless you’ve been convicted of a crime you didn’t commit, though, it can be difficult to fully understand and empathize with those who have. 

The same principle applies to other aspects of our lives. 

If you’ve never had cancer, it’s hard to understand what someone with that diagnosis is going through. If you’ve never lost a child, it’s difficult to know how to minister to those who have. If you’ve never lived in poverty or faced the loss of a job, it’s tough to empathize with those struggling through such circumstances. 

But the first step to doing so is to recognize that fact and choose to rely instead on the Holy Spirit to help us listen well and respond according to his guidance rather than our own. When we speak to the hurting out of our own perceived wisdom or experience rather than relying on the Lord to tell us what to say, we’re liable to be more of a hindrance than a help to those in need. 

Job’s friends in the Bible, for example, are routinely and rightly seen as examples of what not to do when someone around us is hurting. But far too often we slip into the same patterns.

Seek justice

The second lesson is that you don’t have to agree with someone, or even like them, to want them to be treated justly. 

While Hardin and Clark were not guilty of murder, there were numerous reports that came out in the trial about their behavior to raise some serious red flags. Police recovered various occult-related items from Hardin’s home over the course of their investigation. Both men were accused by multiple people of either performing or discussing animal sacrifices as part of satanic rituals. One of Warford’s friends testified that, during a period of time where Warford mistakenly believed she might be pregnant, Hardin had threatened to kill her and the baby if it were true. 

It is unclear to what extent those allegations are accurate, but the reports suggest that—at least at the time of the trial—Hardin and Clark were not paragons of morality. None of that changes the fact, though, that both men were treated unjustly and robbed of twenty-one years of freedom. 

As Christians, one of the most important witnesses we can have to our culture is to argue on behalf of those with whom we disagree when they are not treated fairly. After all, our ultimate allegiance and responsibility is owed to God rather than other people.

We should be among our culture’s chief proponents of equality and justice because those things matter to our Lord, and he says they should matter to us.

Remember, such were you 

So the next time you’re tempted to overlook someone being treated poorly because you don’t agree with them on a particular issue or because they live in opposition to God’s truth, take a moment to think about what our lives would be like if God took the same approach with us. Then ask God to help you keep that perspective in mind as you go through your day. 

In this world, we are constantly surrounded by people who think, act, and believe differently than we do. But we don’t have to agree with people to do our part to make sure they are treated fairly. 

Such an approach will seldom be easy, and to do it well requires both empathy and an understanding of what God has done for us. Yet it’s the example set by our Lord 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 up today?

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