We’ve heard too many stories of innocent people being punished for crimes they didn’t commit. While the system is in place to protect us, oftentimes, things fall through the cracks. This is why people rely heavily on defense attorneys to help them fight the judicial system.
But what happens when all the evidence is there yet someone is still wrongly punished? Where did the system go wrong in cases like this? One innocent man and his defense team worked diligently to prove his innocence by finding the missing crack in the case…
The Night Of Horror
One night in September 1982, a couple and their three children were asleep in their home in Virginia. They were awakened by an intruder breaking into the home, wearing a white sailor’s outfit and carrying a crowbar. The man viciously beat the husband, Jesse Perron to death with the crowbar.
But he didn’t stop there. With her husband lying dead on the ground, the man repeatedly sexually assaulted the woman. He held a diaper over her head and threatened to harm her children if she didn’t cooperate. It was the absolute worst day of the family’s lives and the story made headlines all over Virginia and the U.S….
That night, when investigators arrived at the scene, a security guard told police he saw a sailor with blood splattered all over his white Navy uniform. The woman also gave a description of the man matching the security guard’s description, causing police to hone in on enlisted sailors of the E-3 rank on aircraft carrier being worked on at the shipyard at the time.
But investigators needed more evidence to convict someone, but then the woman showed them her legs. During the course of the attack, the assailant bit her legs repeatedly, leaving her with bite marks. Then, the security guard on the property was able to testify that a man named Keith Allen Harward was the sailor that he saw…
But Harward swore that he was not the man they were looking for and that he had never seen the woman in his life, and furthermore that he would never do such an inhumane and despicable thing. While the court didn’t care what Harward had to say, he caught a break when a dentist reviewed the dental records of Marines stations to the USS Carl Vinson at the time and excluded him.
“The Bite Mark Case”
However, just six months later after being in the clear, Harward’s then-girlfriend reported to police that he bit her during a dispute. He became a suspect again and many referred to his case as, “the bite mark case.”
At the trial, the prosecution rested on the testimony of two forensic dentists, Lowell Levine and Alvin Kagey. At the time, Lowell was known as one of the top experts in forensic bite mark analysis, so his input weighed heavily on the judge’s decision. Lowell and Kagey claimed that Harward’s teeth matched photos of the bite mark left on the female victim.
The other evidence against Harward at the trial was a testimony from the security guard claiming to have seen him enter the shipyard with his bloody uniform. Harward then made the bold decision to testify in his own defense…
He explained to the jury and presented evidence that he didn’t match the victim’s description, but still, he was convicted of capital murder. Harward was facing the death penalty but luckily for him, his conviction was reversed in 1985 because of an issue regarding how the capital murder statute should be interpreted.
Harward was then retried and convicted again in 1986, but he was no longer eligible for the death penalty under Virginia law. At the second trial, the jury disregarded evidence in Harward’s favor and found him guilty of first-degree murder, rape, forcible sodomy and robbery. He was 26-years-old when he was sentenced…
Over Three Decades In Prison
After serving 33 years in the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, the Innocence Project got involved in Harward’s case. They pushed for DNA tests, which failed to identify Harward’s genetic profile in sperm left at the crime scene.
The DNA matched that of one of Harward’s former shipmates, Jerry L Crotty, who died in an Ohio prison in June 2006, where he was serving a sentence for abduction. Attorney General Mark R. Herring strongly backed Harward’s innocence petition with the Virginia Supreme Court saying…
An Innocent Man
“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,” Herring said. Given that a ruling would take several weeks, Herring said his office would support releasing Harward in the meantime, with a bail hearing to take place soon.
Bite Mark Evidence
Throughout Harward’s prosecution, six bite mark analysts agreed that marks found on the victim matched to Harward. In addition to the two who testified at trial, two defense lawyers who represented Harward asked forensic dentists to review the evidence and both dentists agreed that the marks matched to Harward. So, where did they go wrong?
Bite Marks As Evidence
A case such as this has made it increasingly clear that our justice system is certainly flawed. Bite marks are not the best evidence, nor are witness testimonies or false confessions. Herring said, “Our criminal justice system does not exist simply to get convictions…It exists to pursue truth and justice…In this case, the commonwealth got it wrong.”
In February 2016, the Texas Forensic Science Commission recommended that the state issue a moratorium on the use of bite mark analysis in prosecutions throughout the state. The American Board of Forensic Odontology has even changed its guidelines to acknowledge that the technique cannot be used to identify a person as the biter…
Harward is at least the 25th person to have been wrongfully convicted based in part on bite mark evidence. For decades, courts have permitted forensic dentists to testify in criminal trials, even though there is a complete lack of scientific support for this.
Herring commented on Harward’s release saying, “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.” Despite what happened to him, Harward is going to make the most of the life that he has left. As far as what he plans to do now that he is a free man…
Picking Up The Pieces
Harward says he’s looking forward to having some fried oysters as soon as he can, but beyond that, he’s not sure. He has plans to go to North Carolina, where his family lives and there, he will learn how to adjust to life outside of prison. His brother’s children will have to teach him how to use a computer, Harward said. “I’ve got to start my life over again.”
The Innocence Project
The Innocence Project is very pleased with the results of their hard work. “The DNA results prove in this case without any question that Mr. Harward has spent 33 years in prison for a crime he did not commit,” said Harward’s attorney at the Innocence Project.