Two Kentucky men who spent 22 years in jail for an unsolved 1992 murder they did not commit agreed this week to settle a civil rights case against Louisville for $20.5 million.
In 2018, Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Clark were exonerated in the stabbing death of Rhonda Sue Warford after lawyers presented DNA and other evidence casting doubt on the 1995 murder conviction of the men, who were accused of killing Ms. Warford as part of a satanic ritual.
“The settlement pretty loudly and clearly represents an acknowledgment by the city of Louisville that Jeff and Keith were completely innocent and wronged through egregious police misconduct,” said Elliot Slosar, a Chicago-based lawyer who represented Mr. Clark in the case.
Kevin Trager, a spokesman for the Louisville mayor’s office, said that after many years of litigation, “we have reached an important conclusion with this settlement.”
“The criminal investigation involving the death of Ms. Warford is active and ongoing and we remain hopeful her family will see justice,” he said.
The case was yet another blemish for Louisville’s law enforcement services, which came under fire after the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police officers in a botched raid on her apartment in 2020.
Ms. Taylor’s death prompted a federal investigation that earlier this year revealed systemic police misconduct, including the use of excessive force and discrimination against Black people, among other civil rights violations.
Though Mr. Clark and Mr. Hardin have now been free for years, the settlement will allow them to move forward with their lives, their lawyers said, which have been marked by a difficult period of readjustment after serving decades of life sentences.
“It means I can get started on with my life, because after you do so many years like that, you get out and you have nothing,” Mr. Clark said in a phone interview on Friday night.
“And it means that they’re being held accountable,” he added.
Much of the lawsuit brought against the city rested on the actions of a disgraced Louisville police detective, Mark Handy, who was convicted in 2021 of lying in a separate case he had investigated that ended in a wrongful conviction, according to The Louisville-Courier Journal.
Mr. Handy’s lawyer could not be reached for comment on Friday.
In the case against Mr. Clark and Mr. Hardin, Mr. Handy, along with other detectives, “developed the false theory” that the two men “had murdered the victim in a satanic ritual killing,” according to the lawsuit.
Mr. Handy, who had a reputation among colleagues as a “closer who could wrest a confession out of anybody,” falsely reported that Mr. Hardin had admitted to performing such rituals by sacrificing animals and decided that he wanted to “do a human,” according to the lawsuit.
“It became the linchpin of the case against Hardin and Clark,” the lawsuit read. “But nothing in the statement was true.”
A judge vacated Mr. Clark’s and Mr. Hardin’s convictions in 2016, citing Mr. Handy’s questionable credibility as well as DNA evidence that showed that a hair recovered at the murder scene did not belong to either man, according to the Innocence Project, an advocacy group that takes on wrongful conviction cases.
The state attempted to retry the men for the murder, this time seeking the death penalty. But a judge ruled that the case was vindictive and dismissed it.
“They tried, essentially, putting two innocent people on death row after they were granted a new trial,” Mr. Slosar said.
The settlement ends years of litigation against the city of Louisville, which Mr. Hardin’s lawyer, Nick Brustin, said had “fought tooth and nail.”
Both lawyers are still pursuing lawsuits against the Kentucky State Police and the Meade County Sheriff’s Office, who they say are guilty of misconduct in the case against their clients. The lawyers say that a state police forensic analyst falsely testified that the hair used in the case matched Hardin’s and that an investigator from the sheriff’s office conspired with a witness to provide false testimony.
All the while, Ms. Warford’s murder remains unsolved.
“All of this is attributable to police misconduct,” Mr. Slosar said. “And the desire to close a case instead of solving a case.”