An innocent man convicted of a savage 1982 murder in Newport News and exonerated last month by the Virginia Supreme Court will speak about his experiences today at the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s 65th Public Square.
Keith Allen Harward, 60, of Greesnboro, N.C., was released from prison April 8 after more than 33 years behind bars for the slaying of Jesse Perron, largely on the basis of a now highly controversial forensic dental technique that has contributed to other wrongful convictions in the United States.
The RTD Public Square marks Harward’s first return to Virginia since his release.
Perron was bludgeoned to death with a crowbar as he lay in his bed early on the morning of Sept. 14, 1982. As her husband was dying and their three children slept in a nearby bedroom, Perron’s wife was thrown to the floor and sexually assaulted by the killer, who wore a Navy uniform and who repeatedly bit her on her legs.
Police believed the suspect was a sailor stationed on the USS Carl Vinson at the nearby shipyard, where Perron worked.
The rape victim could not identify Harward, then a 26-year-old sailor, as the assailant. In what became known in Tidewater media as “the bite mark case,” two forensic dentists testified that Harward’s teeth matched those of the assailant who left the bite marks on the rape victim.
Harward was tried twice, and first convicted of capital murder in 1983. He escaped a death sentence after his parents, both of whom died while Harward was in prison, begged the jury to spare his life. The capital murder conviction was tossed out on appeal and Harward was retried and convicted of first-degree murder in 1986 and sentenced to life.
Recent DNA testing failed to find Harward’s genetic profile in sperm left by the attacker and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science obtained a cold hit on the profile of a career criminal — and former shipmate of Harward’s — who died in an Ohio prison 10 years ago.
Lawyers with the Innocence Project — including Olga Akselrod, who also will attend today’s Public Square with Harward — filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Supreme Court in March.
On April 6, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced he also believed Harward innocent and that his office was joining the exoneration request. Less than 24 hours later — catching everyone by surprise — the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously cleared Harward and ordered his release.
Harward left the Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville the next day and headed home to Greensboro with his family. He has been adjusting to life on the outside and recently appeared at an Innocence Project event in New York City, where he met author John Grisham of Charlottesville.
RTD Public Square #65: A conversation with Keith Harward
When: Tuesday, May 24
Time: Noon to 1:30 p.m.
Where: The Times-Dispatch’s downtown offices, 300 E. Franklin St.
Parking: limited parking available in RTD deck; street parking available
Important note: Attendance is free, but seating is limited. Call ahead to reserve your spot. Walk-up seating will not be available. To preregister, visit Richmond.com/Harward or call Bob Rayner at (804) 649-6073.