BURKEVILLE, Va. (AP) — As he walked into the Virginia sun after spending 33 years in prison for crimes authorities now say he didn't commit, the fact that his parents weren't there to see him become a free man weighed heavily on Keith Allen Harward's mind.
"That's the worst part of this," said Harward, who choked back tears as he spoke about his parents, who both died while he was wrongfully imprisoned. "I'll never get that back."
Harward was released from the Nottoway Correctional Center on Friday after the Virginia Supreme Court agreed that DNA evidence proves he's innocent of the 1982 killing of Jesse Perron and the rape of his wife in Newport News.
Harward was a sailor on the USS Carl Vinson, which was stationed at the shipyard close to the victims' home at the time of the crime. A security guard identified Harward as the man he saw entering the shipyard wearing a bloody uniform, but the woman never identified him as her attacker. The prosecution's case relied heavily on the testimony of two experts who testified that his teeth matched bite marks on the woman's leg. No other physical evidence linked Harward to the crime.
The Innocence Project got involved in Harward's case about two years ago and pushed for DNA tests, which failed to identify Harward's genetic profile in sperm left at the crime scene. The DNA matched that of one of Harward's former shipmate's, Jerry L. Crotty, who died in an Ohio prison in June 2006, where he was serving a sentence for abduction.
The reliability of bite-mark evidence has come under increased scrutiny in recent years.
An Associated Press investigation in 2013 found that at least 24 men convicted or charged with murder or rape based on bite marks found on victims have been exonerated in the U.S. since 2000. The Associated Press story was based on decades of court records, archives, news reports and filings by the Innocence Project.
"We've learned nothing if we continue to use this evidence even though we know it has no basis in science," said Dana Delger, an attorney with the Innocence Project.
Harward initially faced the death penalty, but a loophole in the law caused his capital murder conviction to be overturned in 1985, said Olga Akselrod, another Innocence Project attorney.
"The fact that this case involved an innocent man who faced the death penalty should terrify everyone, not just in the state of Virginia but also in the 31 other states that still have the death penalty," Akselrod said.
Harward said he's heading to his home state of North Carolina with family, who acknowledged that it will take him some time to get used to his new world.
"Keith is stepping out of a time capsule into a different world. We're going to try to help him all we can," said his brother, Charles Harward.
Harward said he's looking forward to having some fried oysters as soon as he can. Beyond that, he's not so sure. He just excited to be free to do whatever he wants.
"Go out and hug a tree, sit in a park. Whatever I want to do. Because I can."
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer