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Ex-sailor exonerated after 33 years calls Newport News officials ‘criminals’

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BURKEVILLE, Va. -- Keith Allen Harward walked out of the Nottoway Correctional Center with enthusiasm in his stride, a free man who found exoneration 33 years after continuing to maintain his innocence.

Two years ago Harward’s case was picked up by the Innocence Project, who also worked with the Washington law firm Skadden Arps to free Harward.

DNA testing proved without any doubt that Harward is innocent of the 1982 killing of Jesse Perron and the rape of Perron’s  wife in Newport News.

“This case resulted in unspeakable loss for so many people, the 33 years that Mr. Harward lost cannot be returned to him,” said Olga Akselrod of the Innocence Project. “Those are years that most people are building careers, families.”

“As horrible as this case is, it could have been worse,” she added.

The Commonwealth of Virginia sought the death penalty in Harward capital murder case.

Mark Holmberg shares his take on Keith Allen Harward

Harward, now age 60, was a sailor on the USS Carl Vinson, which was stationed in Newport News. The victim never identified Harward as the attacker, but a security guard identified him as a person he saw walking bloodied through the shipyard.

“If there had not been DNA in this case, he would have still been screaming his innocence into the wind, with nobody listening,” Akselrod said.

“This was not an unavoidable tragedy,” she added.

When Harward spoke, he lamented the efforts of the prosecution, and called many officials involved “criminals.”

Man jailed for 33 years slams the system that put him there

Harward was convicted based on bite-mark evidence, which lawyers maintain is a bad science.

“They literally bet his life on bite-mark evidence,” said Dana Delger, an attorney with the Innocence Project.

“…If courts had done what needed to be from the beginning, had they been policing junk science…Harward’s life would not have been destroyed for 33 years,” said Chris Fabricant, also with the Innocence Project.

Harward did not mince words when he spoke about his prosecution and the people involved in it. He recounted how a worker with the state lab testified at both his trials that there was no blood at the scene to run against Harward’s. He said that when his case was recently reviewed, they found evidence was collected that showed a Type O blood.

“I’m Type A blood,” Harward said. “So, he’s a criminal, because he lied.”

“The detectives tried to convince me to admit to something I didn’t do,” he said.

He claimed that one of the detectives had a brass paperweight made from Harward’s teeth.

Harward's parents did not live to see his innocence, though they always believed

It was his commitment to his story that kept him from parole as well, since he would not ever admit guilt.

Harward’s family died while he was incarcerated; they never got to see his name cleared.

He broke into tears as he said that it hurt him the most that they had their hearts broken -- though he said they knew he was innocent all along.

“It’s the worst part of this whole deal…that’s what I think about the most – that they aren’t here to enjoy this.”

"It's just heartbreaking to think that more than half of his life was spent behind bars when he didn't belong there," State Attorney General Mark Herring said Thursday. "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 had no comment when asked if he was pursuing restitution from the state.

Hasn't quite registered yet

He did say that he's looking forward to having some fried oysters as soon as he can – though he said a grocery store would be overwhelming.

Beyond that, he is headed home to North Carolina, to be with the family he has left. The grandchildren will have to teach him about new technology he said.

"I'm going to be overwhelmed, because I've got to start my life over again,” Harward said.

He is excited to be free to do whatever he wants, though he said “it hasn’t really hit me.”

"Go out and hug a tree, sit in a park. Whatever I want to do. Because I can do it now."

"You don't miss the water until the well runs dry," he added.

You can watch his full comments in the video player above.

Harward is the 338th person to be exonerated by DNA, post-conviction. He is the 25th victim to be wrongfully convicted based on bite-mark evidence alone.