RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A former sailor convicted of rape and murder in Virginia more than three decades ago is innocent and should be released from prison, the state's highest court said Thursday.
The Virginia Supreme Court granted Keith Allen 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.
Harward will be released from the Nottoway Correctional Center on Friday, said Olga Akselrod, an attorney with the New York-based Innocence Project, which took on the man's case. The Supreme Court's swift action on his case speaks to "how incredibly powerful the evidence of his innocence is," she said.
Harward has been serving a life sentence 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. Harward's case hinged primarily on the testimony of two experts, who said his teeth matched marks left on the woman's leg.
Harward's attorneys say the man's case is a prime example of unreliability of bite-mark evidence, which is still allowed in courts today. Harward is the 25th wrongful conviction or indictment based on bite-mark evidence since 2000, said Chris Fabricant, the Innocence Project's director of strategic litigation.
"How many more Mr. Harwards do we have to have before we stop admitting bite-mark evidence in trials?" Fabricant said. "It almost cost him his life and it cost him 33 years in prison," he said.
Harward was initially charged with capital murder, but was ultimately not sentenced to death.
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.
Roy Lasris, who represented Harward during his trial in the late 1980s, said he hopes that the state provides the man with the social support, educational training and compensation he will need to try to start a life outside prison walls.
"He's coming into a different world. Thirty-three years later, I can't even imagine. It just saddens me," Lasris said.
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.
Herring said he's glad Harward will soon be reunited with his family.
"It's just heartbreaking to think that more than half of his life was spent behind bars when he didn't belong there," he said in a statement. "The Commonwealth can't give him back those years, but we can say that we got it wrong, that we're sorry, and that we're working to make it right."
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer