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A 60-year-old former sailor will be freed from a Virginia prison after 33 years on Friday after the state Supreme Court unanimously found him innocent Thursday of murder and rape thanks to new DNA evidence.
Keith Allen Harward was convicted in 1982 of murdering Jesse Perron of Newport News and raping the man's wife. But a recent review by the state Department of Forensic Science failed to find a DNA match for Harward at the crime scene — instead matching it to Jerry Crotty, a fellow sailor on the USS Carl Vinson at the time.
Crotty died in 2006 while serving a prison sentence in Ohio for kidnapping and burglary.
According to court documents, Harward argued that he didn't match the description of the murderer as a cleanshaven 19- or 20-year-old man wearing a naval insignia of three inverted Vs. At the time of the crime, Harward had a mustache, was a different rank with a different insignia, and was 26 years old.
He was convicted anyway and languished in prison for decades, most recently at Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville.
State Attorney General Mark Herring, who joined a brief Wednesday petitioning the Supreme Court court to issue a writ of actual innocence, called the court's ruling "wonderful news" Thursday.
"It's just heartbreaking to think that more than half of his life was spent behind bars when he didn't belong there," Herring said. "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."
Harward's case was pursued by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit justice reform organization founded in 1992 by prominent lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld. It says it has secured the releases of 337 wrongfully convicted people in the last quarter-century.
"We obviously are very pleased," Olga Akselrod, Harward's attorney at the Innocence Project, told NBC station WAVY of Portsmouth. "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."