A likeable rake, 30-year-old Vance Hardy lived and hustled in Detroit during the Prohibition Era. Though not involved in any serious crime of his own, Hardy had a number of shady friends around town. One such, identified only as Benny, admitted to being a “professional stick-up artist.” Benny was deeply connected with the criminal element in Detroit, and several of his former colleagues were behind bars. Sometime around May 1924, he received a message from his imprisoned cohorts asking for assistance with a jailbreak. Believing that the message had evaded prison censors, Benny set about implementing the plan. He first secured a number of guns to the undercarriage of his car with wire. Then, in hopes of making his visit to the prison appear less nefarious, Benny recruited a few friends without criminal histories to accompany him. Vance Hardy agreed to go along. Both he and Benny would later insist that Hardy had no knowledge of the breakout plan. What happened next is a bit unclear, but somehow Benny was tipped off before reaching the prison that police had learned of the plan. By the time Benny’s car reached the prison gates, the guns had been removed. The police sprang a trap, expecting to head off a jailbreak. Though they found no evidence to support their tip, the police detained Benny and Hardy. According to Benny, the frustrated police then set about trying to pin a crime – any crime – on the two young men. Without regard to procedure, the police arrested the men for murder – without specifying whose.
In the 1920s, the ten-man homicide squad in Detroit had an abundance of unsolved murders. Among them was the murder of Louis Lambert. Lambert was the owner of a soda shop in Detroit rumored to be a front for a speakeasy. As a service to customers getting off work at local factories, Lambert’s shop would often cash their paychecks after the banks closed. He withdrew large sums from a nearby bank branch each Saturday morning to do so. On the morning of May 3, 1924, Lambert had just exited the bank, cash in hand, when a Studebaker that had been parked nearby suddenly pulled up alongside him with curtains drawn. An occupant of the car shot Lambert and pulled him halfway inside, racing off down the street with the shopkeeper's legs dangling. The car stopped a few minutes later in an alley. Three men took off running from the car. Lambert staggered out and fell to the ground shortly thereafter. Bruno Marcelt, a nearby resident, saw this scene from his window and ran out to help. By that time, the assailants were at least a hundred feet away. One of them half-turned and brandished a weapon to discourage Marcelt and another neighbor from pursuit. No one got a good look at their faces. Before the ambulance arrived, Louis Lambert tried to identify the killers -Marcelt heard him whisper something like, “The River Gang got me.” Lambert died later that day in the hospital.
According to Hardy and Benny, at that time the Detroit police had been subjecting them to a seemingly endless stream of lineups, hoping to find a witness who could finger them for murder. Finally, the two were brought before Marcelt, who volunteered that Hardy had the same general build and “ruddy complexion” as one of the men he saw fleeing from the scene of Lambert’s murder. But Marcelt protested that he could not positively identify Hardy, who merely looked “something like” one of the assailants. The police charged Hardy and Benny with Lambert’s murder anyway. On the eve of trial, Marcelt claimed that police threw him in a holding tank and threatened him with prosecution if he didn’t cooperate in identifying Hardy. He believed that a neighbor who had declined to identify Hardy as the assailant had been imprisoned for contempt. With deep misgivings, Marcelt agreed to cooperate. At trial, Benny offered the testimony of some reputable citizens who claimed he was attending a party in their company at the time of the murder. He managed to beat the charges. Hardy’s only alibi was his sister, Gladys Barrett, who testified that her brother was visiting her in Louisville, Kentucky, around the time that Lambert was killed. She recalled that Hardy had attended the Kentucky Derby on that specific day, though this was later proven impossible (the Derby did not run). Hardy was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He continued to insist on his innocence, and developed into an unruly prisoner. Several years later, Hardy was shot in the hand during a successful jailbreak. He was the last of four escapees to be recaptured, after more than a week on the lam. He spent eight years in solitary confinement as punishment.
Throughout this period, Gladys Barrett remained convinced of her brother’s innocence. She worked tirelessly on Hardy’s behalf, pursuing every possible avenue of redemption. After saving for fifteen years, she finally managed to put aside enough money to hire counsel. The attorney sought a new trial based principally on procedural grounds. Detroit had once had a custom permitting court clerks to receive verdicts returned by a jury after the judge had retired for the night. The clerk held the verdicts until court convened the next day, whereupon they would be read into the record. Subsequent to Hardy’s conviction, the Supreme Court held this practice unconstitutional, even granting a retrial to one person so convicted. To preempt a flood of follow-on appeals, around that time the records of many convictions that were similarly entered had mysteriously "disappeared" from Detroit’s courts. The lawyer representing Hardy believed that his verdict may also have been returned to an empty bench, making him eligible for rehearing. But like so many others, his trial record was “missing,” and the jurors who convicted him had conflicting recollections. Nevertheless, the lawyer mustered several jurors’ testimony in support of the motion.
Meanwhile, Barrett was working at a munitions plant. One day, she spotted a familiar looking coworker she later determined to be Marcelt. After making his acquaintance, she eventually got Marcelt to admit that he had identified Hardy under duress and always regretted it. The attorney handling the motion for a new trial helped Marcelt draft an affidavit repudiating his earlier testimony, which they then submitted to the court in support of a retrial. A deputy prosecutor summoned Marcelt soon thereafter, demanding that he explain his change of heart.
According to Marcelt, the prosecutor insisted that his earlier trial testimony was simply irreconcilable with this new affidavit – one or the other had to be perjury. Marcelt once again believed he could and would be prosecuted if be contested Hardy’s conviction, so he withdrew the affidavit by alleging that the attorney who drafted it had misrepresented his testimony. Judge Joseph A. Gillis, a demanding criminal jurist, promptly denied the request for a new trial for lack of supporting evidence.
Despite this setback, Barrett did not abandon her efforts to win Hardy’s freedom. Ultimately, she wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason novels and founder of an innocence project called The Court of Last Resort. Gardner and his investigative team sought justice for prisoners they believed had been wrongly convicted of murder and later published their stories. The team had recently been successful in another Michigan case with the assistance of Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a Lansing-based lawyer, physician and pathologist. Dr. Russell Finch, the attending physician in the prison where Hardy was held, was friendly with Dr. Snyder. At that time, Hardy was training as a nurse’s assistant under Dr. Finch. The two doctors pressed Gardner and his team to investigate Hardy’s story. They began by interviewing Marcelt, who admitted he should not have identified Hardy but remained terrified of prosecution. Dr. Snyder and company took the matter straight to the office of head prosecutor Gerald O'Brien. The prosecutor offered his personal assurance that, if Marcelt now gave honest testimony, he would not be prosecuted no matter what he had previously said. Gardner’s team then arranged for Marcelt to testify on tape before an entire group of interviewers. Marcelt finally put the truth on record.
Around that same time, a radio show had approached Gardner about creating a broadcast of one of the team’s investigations. Gardner decided to use Hardy as a test case, starting with Marcelt’s recorded testimony. He later assembled a crew in front of the Detroit bank branch where Lambert was shot to record an interlude at the scene of the crime. A crowd soon gathered, from which emerged a man curious to know the subject of the recording. When Gardner's crew told him they were there to investigate a 26-year-old murder that took place at the site, the man anxiously insisted he had been a witness. Though he never volunteered nor was asked for his testimony back in 1924, at that time the man had been a young boy selling newspapers on a street comer near the bank. He knew the victim as well, having worked in the evenings as a pinboy in Lambert’s bowling alley. He never saw the assailants well enough to identify them, but he did glance at them as they waited for Lambert to emerge from the bank and was satisfied that Hardy was not among them. With tapes rolling, the mystery man also provided crucial background suggesting that the true motivation behind the crime was not robbery, but a business dispute. The man confirmed that Lambert was indeed involved in selling bootleg liquor. Shortly before his murder, Lambert bought a case of whiskey so watered-down and adulterated that his customers would not accept it. He in turn refused to pay for the shipment, and some thugs had shown up at the soda shop a day or two before he died to demand he change his mind “or else.” This story meshed with the last words Marcelt reported hearing from Lambert, fingering the “River Gang” for his death.
Gardner’s team wished to take these recordings to the Governor in support of a pardon. However, a recently-enacted statute then required that any pardon request be referred to the Governor by an independent review board. According to Gardner, no one knew precisely what the scope of the board’s authority was at that time, but in Hardy’s case the board took it upon themselves to “retry the case as a court would.” This meant that laypersons on the board attempted to enforce legal rules of evidence with little understanding as to their proper application. Among their conclusions was that it would be inequitable, some 26 years later, for Hardy to advance the theory that Lambert was actually killed as a result of a bootlegging dispute, given that the prosecutor had not originally confronted that argument. Hardy’s clemency application was denied.
Undeterred, Gardner’s team sought out local counsel to bring a challenge in court. Working pro bono, the attorneys decided to appeal once again to Judge Gillis, the same judge who had previously denied Hardy a retrial. Before filing an official appeal, Gardner's team first met with Judge Gillis and asked for his frank recollections with respect to the earlier procedural decision. Judge Gillis said he denied the motion because he saw the evidence as evenly balanced with respect to whether Hardy’s verdict was returned to an empty bench. In his opinion, Hardy needed to establish that fact by a preponderance of the evidence and had failed to do so. However, Judge Gillis agreed that he would order a new trial if Gardner’s team could introduce some new bit of evidence to offset that balance. They set about doing so.
Constrained by the passage of almost 26 years, it seemed nearly hopeless, but Gardner finally traced one surviving juror to far northern Maine. One of his investigators hired a local notary public and paid a visit to the juror. Fortunately, the juror recalled Hardy’s case quite clearly and was certain that the judge had not been on the bench at the time his group returned the verdict. Gardner’s team obtained an affidavit to that effect and brought it to Judge Gillis. True to his word, Judge Gillis granted Hardy a new trial. Having read Marcelt’s post-conviction testimony, Judge Gillis directed a verdict of acquittal, stating that he was convinced of Hardy’s innocence.
Hardy was released from prison that same day, on December 3, 1953. The very next day would have marked the beginning of his 27th year of wrongful imprisonment. Upon his release, Hardy remarked that he was “just another victim of the rough, tough Prohibition time.” He said he planned to move to Lansing, accept a job offer in the nursing profession, and “repay Gladys for all those years when she was the only one who had hope.”
- Researched by David Doyle
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.