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Victims of 1990s Satanic Panic Finally Receive Justice

Last year, a cascading series of sloppy news articles written by irresponsible journalists who didn’t bother to check the facts led to a miniature Satanic Panic. Egged on by David Morgan, a local Sheriff running for re-election, and Dawn Perlmutter, a right wing activist and self-proclaimed “ritual murder expert” who in fact has no education or training in either criminal justice or ritual analysis, but only a degree in art, reporters ran away with baseless speculation that Voncile Smith and two of her adult sons were killed in their home in Pensacola, Florida by a bloodthirsty Wiccan performing a deadly Blue Moon ritual.

Only after several weeks did the Sheriff and other investigators admit that, in contradiction to their early assertions, there was no evidence at all that the murders were related to Wicca or had any ritual aspect at all. After this acknowledgement that there wasn’t really any ritual aspect to the crimes, journalists largely stopped covering the crime. To this day, journalists continue to repeat incorrect information about the case. The most recent reporting on the prosecution, for CBS affiliate WKRG, written by J.B. Biunno, claims that the killings “occurred near the night of a blue moon, which is heavily referenced in witchcraft lore, and occurs once every three years.”

ritual killing in christianityIn fact, a large number of murders occurred last year near the night of a blue moon, but none of those murders were said to be ritually-conducted as a result in the way that the murders of Voncile Smith and her sons were. Blue moons are not actually heavily referenced in witchcraft lore. There are more than twice as many references online relating Christianity to a “blue moon” than there are relating Wicca to a blue moon – though the Christian holy book contains a story in which the Christian god explicitly instructs one of his followers to conduct a ritual murder of his own son. Yet, no one alleged that the Pensacola murders were a Christian ritual killing. What’s more, WKRG couldn’t even get the astronomical information about blue moons right. They occur at irregular intervals, sometimes years apart, sometimes twice in one year.

We can easily shake our heads in wonder at how the professions of law enforcement and journalism could so thoroughly botch the investigation of the Pensacola murders, repeating bizarre claims of ritual murder that were clearly irrational from the start. However, in understanding the Satanic Panic of Pensacola in 2015, we need to acknowledge that the mistakes made by reporters and police officers there were not isolated incidents. Over the last four decades, Christian evangelical anti-ritual conspiracy theories about occult ritual murder have been repeatedly given credence in criminal investigations and crime reporting, even when the allegations of ritual crimes made no logical sense.

Such was the case with the murder convictions of Garr Keith Hardin and Jeffrey Dewayne Clark in Meade County, Kentucky. In 1992, the men were accused of killing Rhonda Sue Warford and dumping her body in a field. They were convicted in 1995, and had been imprisoned as a result until this week.

Back in 1995, the prosecution’s main argument was that Hardin and Clark had conducted a Satanic ritual murder of Warford. This was in spite of the fact that an expert hired by the state of Kentucky testified that no evidence related to the crime could be cited as reasonably indicating that a Satanic ritual killing had taken place.

Hardin and Clark were linked to the crime only by the following evidence:

– A hair that was found on the sweatpants of the murder victim was claimed by the prosecution to be “matched” to Hardin.
– Testimony by police detective Mark Handy that Hardin and Clark had confessed to him that they committed the crime.
– There was broken glass and a cloth with blood stains on it found in Hardin’s home.

Actually, Detective Handy obtained no written confession from Hardin and Clark. Neither did obtain any audio or video recording of any confession by Hardin and Clark. Hardin and Clark have consistently maintained that they never confessed to the murder in any form. Since the time of the trial, evidence has been obtained that Detective Mark Handy has a record of fabricating false confessions in order to support wrongful convictions.

The hair that was found on the sweatpants of Rhonda Sue Warford was subjected to DNA testing after the trial. That testing found that the hair could not have come from either Hardin or Clark. Also, hairs found within the hand of Warford came from neither Hardin nor Clark, suggesting the involvement in the murder of someone other than the two men who were convicted of the crime.

The 1995 jury’s conviction hinged upon an conspiracy theory pushed by the Meade County prosecutor. The prosecution told the jury that a broken glass found in Garr Hardin’s house was a ritual chalice that Hardin had used to sacrifice animals to Satan, and that the blood on the cloth was animal blood that came from the sacrificed animals. The prosecution told the jury that Hardin had grown bored of animal Satanic sacrifices, and killed Warford with Clark’s help in order to relieve the tedium.

The only evidence for this outlandish theory was a broken glass and a cloth with blood on it from Hardin’s house. Garr Hardin had provided a more plausible explanation: That he had accidentally broken the glass, and cut himself with it, then used the cloth to clean up the resulting blood from his own body.

The jury didn’t believe Hardin, because they were enthralled with the idea that Hardin was a murderous Satanist conducting mysterious violent rituals. The jury found the prosecution’s conspiracy theory to be more credible, because it fit with their conservative, Protestant Christian ideology.

After the trial, the blood on the cloth found in Hardin’s home was subjected to a DNA analysis. It wasn’t animal blood. It was human in origin. Just like Garr Hardin had said, the blood was his own.

Over and over again, allegations of Satanic or Wiccan ritual murders are found to be without substantiation. Over and over again, the people who accuse others of conducting ritual murders are discovered to be incompetent or guilty of deliberate perjury.

There is no nationwide conspiracy of ritual murders in the USA. There is, however, a lengthy history of victimization of innocent people in the United States by extremist Christians who claim to have discovered ritual killings in our midst. In this history of victimization, American journalism has tended to side with the bizarre conspiracy theories of the persecutors, rather than the simple, plausible denials of the accused.

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