Last month, less than 24 hours after Virginia’s highest court exonerated him, Keith Allen Harward walked out of state prison as a free man after spending the last 33 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
One night in September 1982 in Newport News, Virginia, a man in a sailor’s uniform carrying a crowbar entered the home of a sleeping young couple and their three children. He bludgeoned the husband to death, then raped the wife and told her several times that if she did not cooperate, he would “get” the children. The woman described to police the stripe on the attacker’s Navy uniform, which led them to focus on several E-3 ranked enlisted sailors on the USS Carl Vinson—an aircraft carrier at the nearby Newport News Shipbuilding. A shipyard security guard also told police later that he saw a sailor who appeared to have blood spattering on his uniform. Investigators then obtained a number of USS Carl Vinson sailors’ dental records in order to compare them with bite marks that were left on the rape victim.
Harward was ultimately convicted of the rape and murder in 1983, but avoided receiving the death penalty. The testimony of dental experts who claimed that an impression of Harward’s teeth matched the bite marks on the wife was the primary evidence used to convict Harward, who was a former Navy sailor on the USS Carl Vinson. Bite mark testimony, which was considered credible by some courts at the time of Harward’s trial, has been called into question in recent years, however, and is a science that many now consider to be greatly flawed. Because of the importance of the bite mark testimony in the case, it drew the attention of the Innocence Project, which eventually helped achieve Harward’s exoneration.
Since crime scene evidence from the case still existed, new DNA tests were performed in which the semen collected in 1982 was run through the national DNA databank. The results generated a match to Jerry L. Crotty, who was one of Harward’s shipmates on the USS Carl Vinson. Crotty was a career criminal who passed away in 2006 while serving time for an abduction conviction in an Ohio prison.
Following the DNA results matching Crotty, the Virginia Attorney General’s Office gave their support to Harward’s petition of innocence, and in a rare occurrence, the Virginia Supreme Court expedited that petition and ordered Harward to be freed immediately.
Upon his release, Harward was critical of the people who helped convict him, even calling them criminals. He stated that they fabricated a lie and tried to make the story fit to sell to a jury, and that investigators were more concerned with getting a conviction than getting to the truth.
Despite bite mark evidence not having been widely discredited at the time of Harward’s trial, Olga Akselrod, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, claimed that there were other pieces of exculpatory evidence that were supposed to be shared with his trial attorneys, but were never disclosed to them. That evidence, which was found in Newport News police files, Naval Criminal Investigative Service files, and state forensics technicians files, included information about Harward’s blood type and the fact that one of the key trial witnesses had been hypnotized. Although it is unclear whether prosecutors actually knew about the state’s evidence, not sharing it violated the constitutional right to a fair trial. According to Akselrod, if Harward’s lawyers had been given that information from the start, it is highly unlikely that he would have ever been convicted.
Harward is the 338th DNA exoneree, and will not be the last, according to Akselrod. M. Chris Fabricant, the Innocence Project’s director of strategic litigation, added that Harward is the 25th person found to have been wrongfully convicted due to bite mark analysis, and that courts need to forever ban it from being used in prosecutions. Fabricant went on to say that authorities need to look at all convictions based on the discredited bite mark science, and that Harward’s life would not have been ruined 33 years ago had courts and judges regulated junk science such as this in the first place.
After walking out of prison with lawyers and several family members, Harward said he would keep in touch with some of his fellow inmates that he befriended over the years. He also stated that some of the most evil and sadistic people were in that prison.
Harward recalled all that he had lost during his time spent wrongfully incarcerated, stating that he missed out on the small things, such as getting married, having children, and even playing the lottery. He also missed out on some important things too, like his parents passing away in the 1990s while their youngest child was locked up for the rest of his life. Harward got choked up talking about his parents, saying that although being released was the best day of his life, it would have been overwhelming if they had been there. He said his parents believed in his innocence, and that the situation killed and devastated them, and broke their hearts. He blamed the people who convicted him for robbing him of the chance for his parents to see him walk free.
To put into perspective how long 33 years is, when Harward was first sent to prison, Ronald Reagan was president, the country was fighting in the Cold War, and Michael Jackson was at the top of the pop charts. In addition, Harward took home from prison with him a Panasonic cassette player—a memento from his earlier years. He told reporters that some of his brother’s grandchildren would now teach him about computers and the Internet.
As for what happens next for him, Harward said he is not too concerned about it. He said that his release did not seem real and would not hit him until he was driving down the road and could look out the window unobstructed, comparing his incarceration to being in a dog cage. Harward and his family immediately got in a minivan and headed to his hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina, where he will stay with his brothers and start a new life. Harward said he is going to relax, hug a tree, and indulge in some fried oysters as soon as possible.