RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/AP) — “I didn’t lie, I told the truth.”
Those are the words of 60-year-old Keith Harward, who was set free Friday after spending 33 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Harward received a life sentence for the 1982 killing of Jesse Perron and the rape of his wife.
On Thursday, the Virginia Supreme Court granted Harward’s petition for a writ of actual innocence after new DNA tests failed to identify Harward’s genetic profile in sperm left at the crime scene.
On Friday, he stepped outside prison walls for the first time in more than three decades.
“Can I take my sunglasses off?” was the first thing he asked reporters waiting outside the prison.
“It’s up to you,” one reporter replied. “You’re a free man now. You decide.”
In 1982, Harward was deemed responsible for killing a man and raping his wife. During the course of the attack, the assailant bit the wife’s legs repeatedly. The wife, who was never able to identify Harward as the man who attacked her, told police that he was wearing a sailor’s uniform.
A dentist reviewed the dental records of Marines stationed to the USS Carl Vinson at the time and initially excluded Harward. He became a suspect six months later after his then-girlfriend reported to police that he had bitten her in a dispute.
At his trial, the prosecution rested mainly on the testimony of two forensic dentists who claimed that Harward’s teeth matched photos of the bite mark left on the female victim. The other evidence against Harward at trial consisted mainly of the testimony of a security guard who claimed to have seen Harward enter the shipyard with a bloody uniform in the early morning after the attack.
Despite testifying in his own defense and presenting evidence he didn’t match the victim’s description, Harward was convicted of capital murder but was spared the death penalty by the jury. His conviction was reversed in 1985 because of an issue regarding how the capital murder statute should be interpreted. He was retried and convicted again in 1986 but was no longer eligible for the death penalty under Virginia law.
At the second trial, the prosecution argued that Harward could not be excluded as a source of blood evidence recovered on crime scene evidence, but the Innocence Project subsequently learned that the blood evidence did in fact prove that Harward’s blood type did not match blood recovered on the evidence.
Harward, who has maintained his innocence since day one, says a lab technician withheld crucial blood evidence that would have helped acquit him.
But he chose several times, including during cross-examination, ‘nope there’s no blood,'” Harward said of the blood tech. “So he lied. He’s a criminal. I didn’t lie, I told the truth. But he was a criminal and the city of Newport news hired him to testify at my trial. That’s why I say he’s a criminal, because he lied.”
Harward said he could’ve plea bargained, but he refused to confess to a crime that he didn’t commit. He insists he was behind bars because people weren’t looking for justice.
“The egos of those criminals, and I say criminals because I meant the people of Newport News that had me convicted, detectIves, prosecutors, judges, forensics scientists; they went out of the way to convict me,” Harward said. “They weren’t looking for the truth, they were looking for a conviction.”
While Friday was a day of celebration for Harward, he said it hurt not having his parents there to see him set free. They died while Harward was incarcerated, and he wasn’t allowed to attend their funeral.
Now, Harward says it’s the little things he’s looking forward to most, like visiting with his brothers and eating fried oysters.
But that doesn’t mean he’s about to forget the years he’s lost.
“Somebody needs to pay for this,” he said, fighting through tears.
The Innocence Project contributed to this report.