A former sailor wrongly imprisoned for the 1982 slaying of a Newport News man and the rape of his wife is set to be released from prison today, after the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday granted a writ of actual innocence and tossed out his convictions.
Keith Allen Harward will be released from the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville at 1 p.m., said Olga Akselrod, one of his lawyers with the Innocence Project.
Harward, 60, has been locked up for 33 years for the beating death of Jesse Perron and the hours-long sexual assault of his wife. He was convicted largely on the now-discredited findings of two experts who matched Harward’s teeth to bite marks left on the rape victim’s legs.
DNA testing by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science recently failed to find Harward’s genetic profile in sperm left by the assailant but did identify the profile of Jerry L. Crotty, a shipmate of Harward’s on the USS Carl Vinson at the time of the attack. Crotty died in prison in Ohio in 2006; he was being held for abduction, attempted burglary and other charges.
The unanimous action by the Supreme Court came just a day after Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced he believed Harward was innocent and his office joined the petition for a writ of actual innocence, which was filed with the high court March 4 by the Innocence Project and the Washington law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.
“We are absolutely thrilled the Supreme Court moved so quickly,” Akselrod said. She and others who were in San Antonio for an Innocence Network conference set off for Virginia on Thursday night to be on hand for Harward’s release.
“This is wonderful news and it’s great to know that Mr. Harward will soon be reunited with his family,” Herring said.
“It’s just heartbreaking to think that more than half of his life was spent behind bars when he didn’t belong there. 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.”
Michael Kelly, a spokesman for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, said that at the request of Harward’s attorneys, the office has worked with the state Department of Corrections to have him released early this afternoon. “We also worked with Virginia State Police to have him removed from the Sex Offender Registry,” Kelly said.
The justices’ three-page order reads in part: “The court finds by clear and convincing evidence that petitioner has proven all of the requirements ... and that no rational trier of fact would have found proof of Harward’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The court grants the requested writ of actual innocence, and vacates Harward’s convictions for murder, rape, forcible sodomy and robbery.”
The Attorney General’s Office said this is the fifth writ of actual innocence granted by the Supreme Court of Virginia based on new biological evidence. Once the commonwealth files an answer to a petition for a writ of actual innocence, the Supreme Court typically considers it for several weeks before acting on it.
Thursday’s ruling by the justices said that the court, “after consideration of the pleadings and exhibits in this case, deems it prudent to accept the attorney general’s declaration that an independent review of the underlying criminal record is unnecessary for the court to evaluate the merits of the petitioner’s claim.”