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Ex-Sailor Keith Harward, Wrongly Convicted of Rape and Murder, Freed After 33 Years

A former sailor who spent more than half of his life behind bars for a rape and murder he did not commit was freed Friday from a Virginia prison.

Keith Allen Harward, 60, held two thumbs up as he emerged from the Nottoway Correctional Center flanked by his lawyers. He had served 33 years in prison.

Keith Allen Harward speaks to the media after being released from the Nottoway Correctional Center. DANIEL MIN / RICHMOND TIMES-DISPATCH

"We can confirm Keith Harward was released today, around 1 p.m.," Greg Carter, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections, told NBC News.

Harward was sprung after the state Supreme Court unanimously found him innocent Thursday thanks to new DNA evidence — and the efforts of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit justice reform organization that has won the releases of 337 wrongfully convicted people in the last quarter-century.

Harward was convicted in 1982 of murdering Jesse Perron of Newport News and raping the man's wife while he lay dying on the floor.

Related: Dateline: How a Convicted Man Fought and Won His Freedom

Harward was 26 at the time of the crime and insisted cops got the wrong man. But the jury believed two forensic dentists who claimed Harward made the bite marks found on the rape victim's legs.

For more than three decades, Harward languished in prison until the Virginia Department of Forensic Science revisited the crime scene evidence and confirmed it did not find a DNA match for the convicted man.

Instead, the state sleuths found a match for Jerry Crotty, who was then a sailor and also assigned to the USS Carl Vinson.

Crotty died in 2006 while serving a prison sentence in Ohio for kidnapping and burglary.

"It's just heartbreaking to think that more than half of his life was spent behind bars when he didn't belong there," State Attorney General Mark Herring said Thursday. "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."