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Keith Harward

Other Virginia DNA Exonerations
Photo of Keith Harward by Daniel Sangjib Min/Richmond Times-Dispatch
In the early morning hours of September 14, 1982, a man broke into a home in Newport News, Virginia and beat 30-year-old Jesse Perron to death with a crowbar. Then, over several hours, the attacker repeatedly sexually assaulted Perron’s 22-year-old wife, Teresa, leaving bitemarks during the assaults. Before the attacker fled, he took $14 from Teresa’s purse.

Teresa helped police develop a composite drawing of her attacker. She told investigators that earlier in the day, she had taken her children swimming and when she drove away from the pool, a hitchhiker in a Navy uniform cursed at her. That evening, around 6 p.m., she was hanging clothes in her backyard when she saw a man watching her through the back fence. Teresa could not say that either man was the attacker, but said the man who cursed at her had a voice that sounded like the man who assaulted her.

Teresa and Jesse Perron’s home was located near an entry gate to the Newport News Shipyard where the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, a recently commissioned aircraft carrier, was harbored and where Perron worked as a welder. The day after the crime was reported in the media, Donald Wade, a security guard at that gate, told police that he saw a sailor with blood spatter on his uniform enter the shipyard through the gate at about 2:30 a.m.

After being hypnotized, Wade changed the time to around 5 a.m., which was consistent with Teresa’s account of when her attacker left. Teresa also was hypnotized and for the first time said the attacker had three upside down V’s on the sleeve of his uniform and that she “associated” the hitchhiking sailor with her attacker, not just that he sounded the same. In the criminal case that ultimately followed, the prosecution did not disclose to the defense that Teresa and Wade were hypnotized and changed their accounts after hypnosis.

A police tracking dog was brought in and led officers from the Perron home through the entry gate where Wade worked and up to the pier where the Carl Vinson was docked.

Police focused their investigation on the Carl Vinson and over several months bitemark impressions were taken from hundreds of sailors on the Carl Vinson before it finally left the harbor in December 1982 with its crew of more than 1,300 men. Police had no suspects at that time.

In March 1983, 26-year-old Keith Harward, a Naval enlistee who formerly had been stationed on the Carl Vinson, was discharged from the Navy. At about the same time, his girlfriend accused him of assaulting her, including biting her during a fight.

Harward had been among those whose teeth were examined in the immediate aftermath of the investigation, but he had been ruled out as the source of the bitemarks on Teresa by a civilian dental consultant working with the Newport News City medical examiner. When Harward came to court, Teresa was there, but could not identify him as the attacker.

At that point, police asked Harward to submit to a second procedure to obtain a cast of his teeth. The cast was sent to Lowell Levine, then a budding superstar in the fledgling field of bitemark analysis who had gained fame for his testimony linking bitemarks to serial killer Ted Bundy and to Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele. Levine concluded that Harward was responsible for the bitemarks on Teresa’s body. Police showed a photographic lineup to Wade, who selected Harward’s picture as the man who came through the security gate with a blood-spattered uniform.

On May 16, 1983, police arrested Harward on charges of capital murder, rape, robbery and burglary.

Harward went to trial in Newport News City Circuit Court and in October 1983 he was convicted of capital murder, rape, robbery, and burglary, primarily based on Wade’s identification of him in court and Levine’s conclusion that Harward’s teeth left the bitemarks. Harward was sentenced to life in prison.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court held that under Virginia’ law at that time, a rape could only elevate a homicide to capital murder if the person murdered was also the victim of the rape.

Harward went to trial a second time in March 1986. Levine testified to a “very, very, very, very high degree of probability” that Harward’s teeth made the bitemarks on Teresa’s body. He told the jury that it was a “practical impossibility that someone else would have all these characteristics” that Levine found in the bitemarks.”

Harward testified in his own defense and denied involvement in the crime. He showed that at the time Teresa said she saw a man staring at her in her back yard, Harward was attending a mandatory Naval alcohol and drug abuse program because he had been caught with marijuana on the ship. Harward also testified that the rank insignia on his uniform at the time of the crime consisted of three slashes, not upside the down V’s that appeared on the uniforms of higher-ranking petty officers. Harward also testified that he had a mustache at the time of the crime—but Teresa and Wade said the man they saw was clean-shaven.

Harward was convicted of murder, robbery, burglary, and rape on March 6, 1986. He was again sentenced to life in prison.

In July 2015, the Innocence Project obtained a court order for DNA testing of the physical evidence in the case. The DNA tests excluded Harward as the source of the biological evidence.

The Innocence Project’s investigation also discovered that the crime lab analyst who conducted laboratory analysis of the blood and semen recovered in the case falsely testified that Harward could not be eliminated as the source of the evidence. The analyst’s bench notes of his testing actually excluded Harward. The notes were not disclosed to Harward’s defense attorney at the time of his trials.

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

In March 2016, the Innocence Project and the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence. In April, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said he believed in Harward’s innocence and joined in the petition. On April 7, the Virginia Supreme Court issued the writ of actual innocence, the convictions were dismissed and Harward was released after spending 33 years in prison.
In 2017, the Virginia Legislature approved payment of $1.6 million to Harward with a lump sum of $309,000 and the remaining $1.2 million to be used to purchase an annuity. Gov. Terry McAuliffee signed the legislation in March 2017.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 4/15/2016
Last Updated: 8/6/2020
County:Newport News City
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape, Robbery, Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1982
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes