Kenneth Clair: Man convicted in 1984 Santa Ana murder pushing for new trial

Convicted killer Kenneth Clair appears in a Santa Ana courtroom for a sentencing hearing on Friday. (Photo: Joshua Sudock / Digital First Media / Orange County Register)

“I am innocent. I didn’t commit this crime,” Clair said, speaking from inside the Theo Lacy jail in Orange. “That’s all I wanted: My day in court”

Clair is off death row. In 2015, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the death penalty could not be fairly imposed on him. His defense attorney Julian Bailey admitted his penalty phase trial work in 1987 was incompetent.

Last week, Clair filed a motion for a new trial, alleging prosecutors withheld scientific test results that could clear him.

In the past, prosecutors said, they have provided the defense with everything they’re entitled to. More than 160,000 people have signed an online petition seeking Clair’s freedom. But the victim’s daughter, Kristy Rodgers, now 38, says: “He claims he’s innocent and I don’t believe that. … My mother’s murder was brutal.”

Kristy Rodgers, then just a little girl, was among five kids in the Santa Ana home during the murder. She lived there with her mom’s friend Peggy Hessling-Wise, Peggy’s boyfriend at the time, Kai Henrickson, and her kids.

Hessling-Wise discovered the body.

“I pushed open the door and there was like red stuff… it was blood splatter,” said Hessling-Wise. “I started to get up on the bed…and she was right there.”

Rodgers was bound, gagged, beaten, stabbed and strangled. Hessling-Wise’s son, Jarrod, just 5 at the time, was the only alleged witness.

Jarrod, now 37, originally told police the killer was white. He told Eyewitness News he saw a white man with Rodgers the night of the murder, but that man left and a black man entered the home and killed Rodgers. However, his descriptions changed numerous times over the years and he was not called to testify at trial.

Court documents indicate no fingerprints, no blood could tie Clair to the scene.

“No DNA links Kenneth to the case,” said C.J. Ford, a private investigator who’s been trying to clear Clair’s name for more than a decade.

Prosecutors confirm DNA taken from Linda’s body, tested in 2007, did not match Clair. The defense continues to request his name, even though a judge in 2011 denied the release of his identity. “It’s an innocent man. An innocent man has privacy rights,” said Orange County prosecutor Dan Wagner.

Prosecutors say at the time of the murder, that man was 11 years old and living outside the United States.

Prosecutors admit that none of the man’s older relatives were tested or investigated. “They were found to have no connections to Orange County. And because it’s a single genetic marker it’s a very common genetic marker,” Wagner said.

Ford said: “Give me all the discovery, which should give me the DNA results. The defense can investigate further because Kenneth Clair’s DNA is not anywhere on the crime scene.”

Clair claims he was targeted from the start. Then a 25-year-old transient, he admits he was staying at a vacant house next to the victim’s place. He also admits burglarizing the home the week before, but insists he didn’t kill Rodgers.

“The most damning physical evidence that links Clair to the crime scene is his possession of jewelry that was stolen,” said Wagner. That jewelry includes a unique silver turquoise necklace belonging to Hessling-Wise. She told police it was taken the night of the murder. Clair’s girlfriend Pauline Flores told detectives Clair showed her the necklace the same night. She references it while secretly recording Clair for Santa Ana police in 1985.

The motion for a new trial is expected to be heard Friday. Re-sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 13.

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