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After 33 years, Keith Allen Harward walks out of a Va. prison a free man

After 33 years, Keith Allen Harward walks out of a Va. prison a free man

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BURKEVILLE — Keith Allen Harward stepped out of prison on a chilly afternoon Friday, a free man for the first time in more than 30 years. Harward, who was convicted for the rape of a Newport News woman and the murder of her husband in 1982, was freed after the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday granted a writ of actual innocence and tossed out his convictions. “This is what you want our justice system to be about. It’s these people, because they go for the truth,” he said, pointing to his attorneys. “In my case, the egos of those criminals, and I say criminals because I’m talking about those people in Newport News … (who) went out of their way to convict me, they weren’t looking for the truth. They were looking for a conviction.” Dressed in jeans, a denim shirt, white sneakers and suspenders, the 60-year-old was in good spirits as he walked out of the Nottoway Correctional Facility a few minutes after 1 p.m. Friday. Standing in the shadows of the prison, barbed wire shining in the sun behind him and prisoners working out under a guard tower a few hundred yards away, he joked with reporters about the less-than-flattering mug shot that keeps appearing in newspapers while thanking his family for standing by him all these years. Before beginning to speak, he asked lawyers if he should remove a pair of sunglasses. “It’s up to you,” Olga Akselrod, senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, told him. “You’re the free man. You decide.” He left them on. Harward had been locked up for 33 years for the beating death of Jesse Perron and the hourslong 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. Thursday’s 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 of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP. Harward initially was convicted in 1983 of capital murder, robbery, sodomy and rape but escaped a death sentence from the jury. In 1985, however, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that, under state law, he could not be tried for capital murder in the commission of a rape because the murder victim was not the rape victim. He was tried again in 1986, convicted of first-degree murder and again sentenced to life. ***

According to trial summaries, the rape victim was awakened in her bed about 1:30 or 2 a.m. on Sept. 14, 1982, by a loud thumping sound as her husband was being beaten by a man standing over him. The woman was thrown out of the bed and repeatedly sexually assaulted as her husband lay dying. Her assailant held a diaper over her head and threatened to harm her children if she did not cooperate. The intruder then took her downstairs, where they smoked cigarettes. The killer drank a Pepsi, took $14 from her pocketbook and raped her again. He also bit the woman’s legs. According to media accounts at the time, the attack came to be called the “bite-mark case,” in light of the expert testimony that Harward’s teeth matched the bite marks. The woman called Newport News police at 5 a.m., after the assailant left. Investigators photographed the bite marks and swabbed them to collect saliva samples. Other biological evidence, including sperm, also was recovered from her and from the towel and T-shirt she was wearing when police arrived. She told authorities she had not had sex with her husband or anyone else for more than two days before the assault, and that she had been swimming with her children the afternoon before the attack. She said her assailant appeared to be 19 or 20 years old with a clean-shaven “baby face,” and that he wore a Navy uniform with three V’s on it. Her two-story home was located downtown near the entry gate to the Newport News Shipyard, where the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, was under construction. Harward lived in Norfolk but was stationed on the Vinson. Harward’s innocence petition says that more than 1,000 sailors on the ship underwent dental screenings to see if their tooth alignment matched the bite marks on the rape victim’s legs. A mold of Harward’s teeth was made, and he was excluded as a suspect. But then, in March 1983, Harward was in court in Newport News over a fight with his girlfriend, Gladys Bates, that turned physical. He later admitted biting her on the hand and shoulder during the altercation. Police had the 1982 rape victim attend court when Harward was there for the unrelated case involving Bates to see if she could identify him, but she could not identify Harward as her attacker then or later during his trial. But a security guard at the shipyard, after he was hypnotized by police, later identified Harward from a spread of mug shots as a sailor with blood spatter on his uniform and wearing a USS Carl Vinson badge who entered the shipyard early on the morning of the rape and murder. News accounts said Harward was discharged from the Navy in March 1983 and was arrested at his parents’ home in Floyd County in connection with the rape and murder. The innocence petition said Harward cooperated with investigators and allowed a second mold to be made of his teeth. “The detectives, all through the whole situation, tried their best to convince me to admit to something I didn’t do,” Harward said Friday. “I said I would not do it. I am not going to (confess to) something I did not do. So they went out of their way. They hypnotized people. (They) made the story fit.” Two forensic odontologists testified his teeth matched those of the bites on the rape victim. One expert testified, “with reasonable scientific certainty,” that Harward’s teeth caused the bite marks, while the other testified it was not possible that someone other than Harward could have bitten the woman. The evidence apparently was persuasive. In dismissing Harward’s appeal in 1988, the Virginia Court of Appeals noted: “Both forensic dentists testified that all gross characteristics of spacing, width and alignment of Harward’s teeth ‘fit on the money’ the photographs of bite marks.” “If believed, that evidence proves that Harward murdered Jesse Perron. There exists no evidence in the record tending to prove that someone other than Harward murdered Jesse Perron. Finding the circumstantial evidence sufficient, we affirm the conviction,” the appeals court ruled. ***

Harward is at least the 25th person to have been wrongfully convicted or indicted based at least in part on bite-mark evidence, according to the Innocence Project. “Despite the fact that for decades courts have permitted forensic dentists to testify in criminal trials, there is a complete lack of scientific support for claims that a suspect can be identified from an injury on a victim’s skin,” the group says. “This case is really emblematic of everything wrong with bite-mark analysis,” said Akselrod, the Innocence Project attorney. Akselrod said the experts who testified that the bite marks were Harward’s were wrong and that ended up sending an innocent man to prison. “They were wrong because it’s bad science,” she said. Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project, calls bite-mark analysis “discredited science” and blamed court systems for allowing its use in trials. He argues that there should be federal standards in place to avoid “these types of tragedies” from happening over and over. “How many more Mr. Harwards do we have to find before courts take seriously the obligation to eliminate this unreliable evidence from being used when life and liberty are at stake?” Fabricant said Friday. “Literally, Mr. Harward’s life hung in the balance of people who have no idea what they were talking about. They believed there was science behind bite-mark analysis, but there is none.” The Innocence Project is actively looking for cases of people convicted by using bite-mark analysis as evidence. In addition, Harward’s lawyers allege that authorities failed to disclose forensic evidence of his innocence prior to his trial. According to their court filings, a former forensic serologist identified a blood type in semen left at the crime scene that supported the innocence of Harward but was not reported in the serologist’s testimony or in his certificate of analysis used in Harward’s trial. Katya N. Herndon, chief deputy director of the state Department of Forensic Science, said that officials are aware of the allegations and are reviewing the serological analysis conducted in the case. For a man who spent more than half his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, Harward was upbeat Friday. But he also was feisty, repeatedly referring to the police, prosecutors and forensic scientists who helped convict him as criminals. But any bitterness that may have accumulated over the years was not perceptible. Instead, he called for reforms to help keep innocent people out of prison and to free those already there. He urged journalists to push for changes and credited Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Frank Green for bringing attention to his plight in a series of stories and helping force state officials to act so quickly. “Wouldn’t you think it was terrible if you were falsely accused? There’s a lot of people that (don’t) have the opportunity that I have,” said Harward, who first contacted the Innocence Project about a decade ago. “I took a chance. I hope they do. I hope they see this and try.” ***

While Friday was a day of celebration, the coming days, weeks and months will likely be a challenge for Harward, who has spent more of his life in prison than out. “The psychological consequences of incarceration may represent significant impediments to post-prison adjustment,” Craig Haney, a professor in the psychology department of the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote in a 2001 study. “They may interfere with the transition to home and impede an ex-convict’s successful reintegration into a social network and employment setting.” Haney’s study is titled “The Psychological Impact of Incarceration: Implications for Post-Prison Adjustment.” Harward, though, leaves prison with a solid support group that is welcoming him home and an understanding that there is a long transition ahead. He said Friday that he plans to take it easy and begin slowly adjusting to a life of freedom. Harward is moving back to his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., to live with his older brother Charles and Charles’ family. “It’s the small things you lose out on, so I’m going to be overwhelmed because I have to start my life over again,” Harward said. “You know, I had a life, then I got locked up and had this life. Now I got to start another life all over again.” Harward said he wants to learn computers, to go to a park, eat fried oysters, and try to figure out how to use a smartphone. What’s not on the agenda for now is a job. “I’ve got a lot to catch up on, a lot of stuff, and work will get in the way,” he said. One topic he would not discuss Friday was financial restitution or whether he plans to sue those who helped put him behind bars. Virginia has laws in place that say a wrongfully convicted individual is entitled to compensation, but the compensation has to be approved by the General Assembly. Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House courts committee, said Friday that Harward will have to wait until next year’s legislative session for any compensation because passing a bill during the April 20 veto session is not an option. In the “veto session, you can only consider (the) governor’s amendments and vetoes, so it has to be done next year,” he said. ***

Harward said he was in his cell in Nottoway on Thursday afternoon when officials told him he was being moved to the prison’s medical unit. “The next thing I know, I’m sitting with warden up front … and he’s saying, ‘You’re a free man. We can’t let you back into the compound cause it would be a security risk,’ ” Harward said. “I got to sleep about 3 o’clock this morning. Four o’clock, they brought me breakfast. Every so often, people would come by and wish me well and stuff. You know, there are some evil, sadistic people back there. And there’s some bad inmates, too. Think about what I just said.” While Friday was a mostly joyous day for Harward, it also was a day marred by regret. Choking back tears, he spoke of his parents’ support and how they died before they could see his name cleared. He said they never doubted his innocence and that his greatest lament is that they didn’t live to see him free. “That’s the worst part about this. It killed them. It devastated them,” he said. Charles, though, tried to reassure his younger brother. “I told Keith yesterday that I knew his mother and father were jumping for joy,” Charles said. “They’ve seen all this and they know what’s happening. ... They would be as excited as we are.”

Keith Allen Harward (center) hugs Rhonda Rowland of Farmville outside the Nottoway Correctional Facility. Harward was wrongly convicted of a rape and a murder in 1982.

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