NC man, wrongly convicted of rape/murder, freed from VA prison after 33 years

NOTTOWAY COUNTY, Va. (WAVY/AP) – A former sailor convicted of rape and murder in Newport News 33 years ago for a crime he didn’t commit is now a free man.

Keith Harward, now 60 years old, emerged from the Nottoway Correctional Center Friday afternoon, for the first time in decades.

“They went out of their way to convict me. They weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for a conviction,” Harward told the crowd gathered outside the prison.

Harward has been serving a life sentence for the 1982 killing of Jesse Perron and the rape of his wife in Newport News, where Harward’s ship, the USS Carl Vinson was docked at the time.

The Virginia Supreme Court granted Harward’s petition for a writ of actual innocence after new DNA tests failed to identify Harward’s genetic profile in sperm left at the crime scene. The high court’s order came a day after Attorney General Mark Herring said DNA evidence proves that Harward couldn’t have committed the crimes. The evidence implicated another sailor on the USS Carl Vinson, Jerry L. Crotty. Crotty died in an Ohio prison in June 2006, where he was serving a sentence for abduction, Herring said.

Harward said he’s heading to his home state of North Carolina with family, who acknowledged that it will take him some time to get used to his new world.

“Keith is stepping out of a time capsule into a different world. We’re going to try to help him all we can,” said his brother, Charles Harward.

Harward said he’s looking forward to having some fried oysters as soon as he can. Beyond that, he’s not so sure. He just excited to be free to do whatever he wants.

“Go out and hug a tree, sit in a park. Whatever I want to do. Because I can.”

Petition for Writ of Actual Innocence

Herring’s office said in addition to throwing out his conviction, the state has also removed Harward’s name from the state’s sex-offender registry.

When asked how it felt to finally be free, Harward replied, “It hasn’t really hit me.” He continued, “It’s the small things you miss out on… I want to go and breathe and relax.”

Harward choked up while talking about his parents. They both died while he was locked up, never getting the chance to see their son’s redemption. “That’s what I think about the most, that they are not here to enjoy in this.” Harward was convicted of capital murder and only escaped the death penalty because his parents begged for his life in that first trial.

Harward’s attorneys say this case is a prime example of unreliability of bite-mark evidence, which is still allowed in courts today.

“The State of Virginia literally bet Mr. Harward’s life on the use of bite mark evidence. This is a bet that cost him and his family 33 years of his life. The state’s case against Mr. Harward really began and ended with a bite mark,” said Dana Delger with the Innocence Project, which has been representing Harward for two years.

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