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Former sailor spends 33 years behind bars for rape/murder he did not commit

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Posted at 2:25 PM, Apr 06, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-06 14:25:14-04

Richmond, Va. – The legal process to free a wrongfully convicted former sailor in a 1982 rape and murder in Newport News has begun.

Keith Allen Harward was convicted in the September 19, 1982 murder of Jesse Perron and rape of Perron’s wife.

Keith Allen Harward

Keith Allen Harward

According to the Innocence Project, Perron was beaten to death with a crowbar and his wife was repeatedly raped and bitten in their Newport News home. Forensic odontologists said that bite mark evidence proved that Harward, then a 26-year-old sailor, was the perpetrator.

Harward has been in custody since 1983 and was sentenced to life in prison in 1986. He has maintained his innocence ever since.

He was convicted of capital murder, rape, forcible sodomy and robbery. He was initially sentenced to 65 years. It was then changed to first degree murder follow a successful appeal but he was still sentenced to life

New DNA testing has proven that Harward was not the perpetrator.

A report from the Innocence Project also said that “prosecutors neglected to turn over important evidence that could have exculpated Harward more than 33 years ago.”

Attorney General Mark Herring issued a statement Wednesday that the Commonwealth has filed papers to support an innocence petition filed by Harward.

Herring also held a press conference about the case and he expressed deep regrets for the wrongful conviction.

“For more than 30 years, Harward has never admitted guilt and now DNA evidence presented proves that he could not have been the perpetrator. The profile developed from the DNA recovered has been compared to the national DNA data bank,” Herring said.

Jerry Crotty

Jerry Crotty

He said another sailor, Jerry L. Crotty, who died in 2006, was the person believed to be responsible for the crime. He said Crotty fit the description given by the victim and DNA evidence also supports their claim. Crotty was formerly on the USS Carl Vincent.  He died in the Ohio Department of Corrections after he was convicted for abduction.

It will be a few weeks before the Supreme Court is even able to review this case. He said his office has consented to relief and agrees that Harward should be let out of jail. Harward also has the opportunity to request a hearing in Newport News Circuit Court that could get him out of jail.

“When the criminal justice system gets it wrong, we have to say so. In this case, the Commonwealth got it wrong and the pursuit of justice compels me to and support Harward’s petition,” Herring said.

Read the full statement from Attorney General Herring below:

“In January, my office was notified that Keith Allen Harward intended to file a petition for a writ of actual innocence to vacate his convictions for first degree murder, rape, forcible sodomy, and robbery based on the results of new DNA testing performed by the Department of Forensic Science.

Since that time, we have been in close contact with Mr. Harward’s attorneys, cooperating with them to expedite the process and carefully considering and investigating the evidence and all the circumstances as the legal proceedings and additional DNA testing have moved forward. We have also worked alongside Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn as the Commonwealth’s Attorney in the jurisdiction where the crime was committed and the convictions were handed down.

We have taken this claim seriously, and we have approached this with an open mind and a commitment to pursuing the truth and ensuring that justice is served. Alice Armstrong, my Director of Actual Innocence and Capital Litigation, has led our efforts, and I sincerely appreciate her hard work and diligent review of this matter.

For more than 30 years, Mr. Harward has never admitted guilt, and he now has presented DNA evidence that proves he could not have been the perpetrator.

Moreover, the profile developed from the DNA recovered at the crime scene has been compared to the National DNA databank, and it shows that the criminal responsible for this brutal crime is not Keith Harward, but Jerry L. Crotty, a former a sailor who was stationed in the area at the time of the offenses. Crotty died in the custody of the Ohio Department of Corrections on June 6, 2006, where he was detained for a 2002 conviction for abduction.

Based on a careful and exhaustive examination of the circumstances including the latest DNA testing of evidence recovered at the crime scene, it is clear that Keith Harward is innocent of the crimes for which he has been convicted.

If the new scientific testing results had been available at the time of his trial, no rational trier of fact would have found proof of Harward’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Therefore, in light of this new evidence, the Commonwealth agrees that Mr. Harward’s writ of actual innocence should be issued as quickly as possible, and his convictions should be vacated.

My office has filed a brief in the Supreme Court of Virginia to that effect.

We have made this decision in conjunction with and with the consent of Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney Howard Gwynn, who has been an exceptional partner throughout this process and agrees that this is the proper step to take.

We notified Mr. Harward’s attorneys of this development this morning, and as we have done over the past few months, we will continue to work with them to get this situation resolved as quickly as possible and to get Mr. Harward out of prison.

It will likely be a few weeks before the Supreme Court of Virginia has an opportunity to fully review and rule on this petition for a writ of actual innocence. However, now that we have consented to the relief and agree that he should be out of jail, Mr. Harward has the opportunity to request a bail hearing in Newport News Circuit Court that could get him out of jail, pending a decision by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The Governor’s Office has also begun working through the Parole Board to evaluate whether a pardon of some fashion is appropriate in this situation and we will of course work with them as that process unfolds.

Our criminal justice system does not exist simply to get convictions. It exists to pursue truth and justice. The central purpose of any system of criminal justice is to convict the guilty and free the innocent. Within that system, the Attorney General is obligated to present to the Court in each case the facts and the law that ensure a just result. When the system gets it wrong, when the system fails to deliver justice, we have to say so.

In this case, the Commonwealth got it wrong, and the pursuit of justice requires me to join in support of Mr. Harward’s petition.”