In the early hours of Sept. 14, 1982, a man broke into a home in Newport News and beat 30-year-old Jesse Perron to death with a crowbar. Then, over several hours, the attacker sexually assaulted Perron’s 22-year-old wife, Teresa, leaving bite marks during the assault. Before the attacker fled, he took $14 from Teresa’s purse.

Evidence pointed toward a sailor who served on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson that was harbored nearby. At the time, I was one of 1,300 crew members on that ship.

Eight months later, after being discharged from the Navy, I became suspect No. 1 after an assault upon my girlfriend in which I bit her.

On March 6, 1986, a jury in Newport News convicted me of murder, robbery, burglary and rape. I was sentenced to life in prison.

The key evidence against me was a coerced witness identification and testimony by two forensic experts who said that I was the only person who could have left the bite mark on the rape victim.

In July 2015, the Innocence Project obtained a court order for DNA testing of the crime scene evidence. The DNA tests excluded me as the source of the biological evidence.

The investigation by the Innocence Project also discovered that the lab analyst who conducted the analysis of the blood and semen recovered in the case falsely testified that I could not be eliminated as the source of the evidence. The analyst’s bench notes of his testing actually excluded me. Those notes were never given to my defense attorney.

The DNA profile from the crime scene evidence was identified as that of Jerry L. Crotty, another sailor on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson at the time of these crimes. Crotty died in prison in Ohio in 2006, where he was sentenced for numerous crimes, including abduction and attempted burglary.

On April 7, 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a writ of actual innocence, my convictions were dismissed and I was released after spending 33 years in prison.

If I had been sentenced to death back in 1986, the commonwealth would have executed me in the 1990s along with 65 other men. And no one would have ever known that I was innocent.

Virginia has executed 113 men since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976. Only one person, Earl Washington, has been exonerated after being sentenced to die in Virginia. However, some of those killed by the commonwealth went to the execution chamber claiming their innocence. Only God knows how many were in fact innocent.

Since 1976, there have been 166 people exonerated in the United States after being sentenced to death for crimes that they did not commit. In that same time period 1,510 have been executed. That is a ratio of one innocent person for every nine killed by the state. Most people will agree that is an unacceptable and intolerable error rate.

I am only one of 18 people in Virginia who have been exonerated after being wrongfully convicted of murder since 1989. Who knows how many others may still be behind bars for murders that they did not carry out. Our criminal justice system makes mistakes more often that we would like to admit.

It is time for the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment here in the commonwealth. The risk of executing an innocent person is simply too high.

Even though it took 33 years for me to walk out of prison, I am now free to eat what I want and go where I want. I can enjoy the company of family, friends and neighbors. I can appreciate the simple joys of camping and nature.

There is no way that we can undo the terrible mistake of executing an innocent person. That alone is reason enough for ending the practice of capital punishment.

I urge the Virginia General Assembly to abolish the death penalty during its 2020 legislative session.

Keith Harward lives in North Carolina.