HIGH POINT, N.C. — Keith Allen Harward enjoyed the laughter of children and the smell of water evaporating off sun-soaked asphalt as small boats were launched and hauled from nearby Oak Hollow Lake.
Just 10 days earlier, his departure from a Virginia prison as a free and innocent man was captured on television, and things still were a bit hard to believe for the 60-year-old, cautiously re- entering a world from which he was wrongfully severed more than three decades earlier.
“To this day, it hits me: I’m out here,” Harward said Monday while relaxing on a park chair. “You take your first car you ever have, you take your first girlfriend, first kiss, first dog, first house, first child. You know how excited you are in that moment. You put all those together and ramp it up about 10 times. That’s what I feel.”
There also is some anger over the past — his parents died while he was in prison — and uncertainty about the future.
“You know, they write country songs like: ‘He spent 33 years in prison and he was innocent and he got run over by a lawn mower when he stepped out the gate.’ I don’t want to be a country song just yet,” he said.
In his shirt pocket is a notebook with names, phone numbers and lists of things he needs and things he needs to do. “There’s just so much going on, I can’t keep up with it. I just can’t keep up with it.
“It’s an adventure. That’s what it is for me. Every day is an adventure.”
Harward was born and raised in nearby Greensboro, the youngest of the four boys of Charles R. and Mildred S. Harward. His father died in 1995, his mother in 1991.
Within hours of his April 8 release from Nottoway Correctional Center, Harward was back in his hometown, a place he barely recognized. First thing the next morning, his brother, Sonny, took him to visit his parents’ graves.
“We went up there, and there was old flowers and stuff. We pulled those up,” Harward said. He wants to clean the bronze memorial plaque. “I would like to plant a tree. Mama would’ve liked that,” he said, his voice breaking.
“That’s OK,” he said. “I cry when I eat a hot dog. I cried at the news conference.”
‘I didn’t do it, so what did I have to hide?’
Harward was 24 years old, a high school graduate who already had been married and divorced, when he joined the U.S. Navy on Jan. 14, 1980. “I was running around like a knucklehead, drinking and carrying on like a lot of people do at that age,” he said.
It wasn’t patriotism that compelled him to enlist. “I just got tired of waking up drunk in the morning,” said Harward, whose North Carolina twang and quick sense of humor survived three decades behind bars in Virginia prisons.
By 1982, he was a tailor and dry cleaner on the USS Carl Vinson, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a crew of thousands that was dry-docked at the Newport News shipyard. He was living with his girlfriend in Norfolk and commuting to the ship on his motorcycle.
Unknown to him, early on the morning of Sept. 14, 1982, a man was beaten to death and his wife raped in a home near the shipyard by a killer wearing a sailor’s uniform and believed to be part of the Vinson’s crew.
Harward never had been to the scene of the crime, nor ever met the victims. The killer, he would learn decades later, was a shipmate he did not know.
Police, however, soon came to believe the killer was Harward.
He recalls lining up in a chow hall with other sailors while dentists examined their teeth with penlights, trying to identify the attacker who left bite marks on the rape victim’s legs.
“Nothing was said then. I wasn’t pulled aside till later on,” Harward said.
“I did not put it together. I did not know what it was for,” he said.
On March 16, 1983, he received a general discharge under honorable conditions from the Navy. “I liked to smoke marijuana, and I kept getting dirty urines,” he said.
He went to live with his parents in Floyd County, where they had retired on 70 acres that included an old farmhouse with a tin roof, a small pond and a garden.
The next month, his parents drove him back to Newport News for a court hearing over an assault case stemming from a fight with his former girlfriend who later would drop the charge. Harward said they both had been drinking and that he bit her defensively during the struggle. The biting got the attention of Newport News police.
The rape victim was in the courtroom that day but could not identify Harward. A detective approached him and said, “We’d like to talk to you.” At the request of police, his parents drove him to a dentist’s office on Mercury Boulevard, where impressions were made of his teeth.
“I didn’t do it. So I wasn’t concerned, because I thought this was the United States of America and people are treated fair,” he said. “I was cooperating fully because I didn’t do it, so what did I have to hide?”
But, he said, “next thing I know I’m sitting in jail.”
He was arrested by detectives one evening at his parents’ home not long after the dental impressions were taken. He said the state police, the Floyd Sheriff’s Office and an ambulance stood by down the driveway, out of sight.
“Mama and Daddy was worried to death,” Harward said. “And I kept saying, ‘It’s nothing. I didn’t do anything. You all ain’t got nothing to worry about.’ Little did I know.
“When they came and arrested me that night ... Mama and Daddy, they just broke down,” Harward said. “Me being the baby of the family, they depended on me to do a lot of the stuff. When I got locked up, that disappeared.”
The days that followed, he said, were a blur.
He was held for trial at the Newport News jail. “We’re in there, we got TVs and get newspapers and stuff, so I could read and see all about it,” Harward said. “It was all on the news — that’s when I knew it was starting to look bad for me. ‘The suspect has been caught,’ and all this kind of stuff.”
He was charged with capital murder, and the state sought the death penalty for the horrific crimes.
No transcript survives of Harward’s first trial in 1983. When the guilty verdict was announced, he was crushed.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen. I didn’t,” Harward said. “Now my parents, they were worried to death and they were scared to death. They were smarter, older and wiser, so they know how things could go wrong easily.
“But I still felt like I didn’t do it — they can’t find me guilty.”
After the verdict, his parents took the stand and asked the jury to spare their son’s life. “That’s the first time we ever saw my father cry,” Harward said.
“It killed them. It did. I don’t care what anybody says. It broke their hearts, and it killed them. Their health started going down. I mean they were old and stuff, but people do die of a broken heart.”
To his parents, Harward said, “I was the baby. Even when I was 24 years old, she would introduce me to people as ‘This is the baby.’ ”
‘Bogus science, smoke and mirrors ... and it worked’
Despite the brutality of the crime — the murdered man was beaten with a crowbar in his bed and his wife repeatedly raped as he was dying — the jury sentenced Harward to life, an outcome that he and his lawyers took to mean that some on the panel had doubts.
In 1985, the capital murder verdict was overturned on technical grounds, and he was retried the following year on a charge of first-degree murder.
The principal evidence against Harward was testimony from two forensic dentists who concluded that his teeth matched bite marks left on the rape victim’s legs.
One of the dentists was Dr. Lowell Levine, a pioneer in the field who had helped convict serial killer Ted Bundy and assisted in identifying the remains of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele.
“That Levine character, he was a Svengali,” Harward said. By the time Levine was done telling the jury about his background, “they were eating out of his hand,” Harward recalled. Levine, who is from New York, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Bogus science, smoke and mirrors ... and it worked,” Harward said of the dentists’ testimony.
He was resigned to being convicted again, so it did not come as a surprise. “We were outnumbered,” he said. “And now we know we didn’t get half the evidence we were supposed to have been given.”
The Innocence Project since has alleged that Harward’s trial lawyers never were told that witnesses had been hypnotized or that simple blood typing soon after the crimes excluded him as the assailant — no DNA was needed.
For the second time, Harward was sentenced to life.
‘But I knew ... I didn’t do anything wrong’
Harward didn’t know what to expect when he went to prison. “I was scared, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought,” he said.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat it. I mean it’s rough, you’re in prison — but it’s not like Florida or Texas or California,” he said. “It’s changed a lot over the years. When I first went in, you were a convict. Then they it changed to inmate. Now they call everybody an offender.”
The food wasn’t bad, Harward said, though at Sussex II State Prison, “the baloney don’t fry and the cheese don’t melt.” Still, he said, inmates get “more than a lot of people that deserve it don’t have.”
The worst part was missing his family, especially his parents. They were able to visit him in prison for the first few years. “But it got to a point they got so sick, they couldn’t do it,” Harward said.
“My mother, she died on the way to the hospital. My father, when he got sick, he moved in with my brother, Sonny, and lived with him for a good while, and then they put him into a hospice. He died in a hospice.”
Because they were buried in North Carolina and not Virginia, he was unable to attend the funerals.
“What carried me through almost 34 years — the fact that I was innocent. I didn’t throw it in people’s faces. I wasn’t one of that kind (who) run around, ‘Oh, I’m not guilty. I don’t need to be here.’ I accepted it. But I knew ... I didn’t do anything wrong.
“I was dealt a bad hand, so I had to go with it,” he said.
‘Hey, why don’t you write the Innocence Project?’
Harward didn’t seek help from the Innocence Project until 2007.
“I knew nothing about courts and stuff. I just figured I was in — they done convicted me. I was beat. I done give up. It never occurred to me to try that. It just never did, and one of the guys when I was at Sussex II said, ‘Hey, why don’t you write the Innocence Project?’ ”
The Innocence Project’s waiting list is long, and he did not hear back until a letter arrived in August 2014, asking whether he still wanted the group to pursue his case.
Harward moved up in the line because he was convicted on bite-mark testimony, a now highly controversial forensic technique that has contributed to two dozen wrongful convictions. The Innocence Project wants a moratorium on bite-mark analysis until its validity can be proved scientifically.
DNA testing was not available at the time of his 1983 and 1986 trials. Innocence Project lawyers explained to him that they would look for evidence such as seminal fluid left at the scene of the crime and have it tested to see whether a DNA profile could be identified. They cautioned that the evidence was old and may not yield suitable results.
On Jan. 8, 2016, he was told to report to his counselor’s office to take a telephone call. It was some good news from the Innocence Project — his genetic profile was not found on any of the evidence, and he was told that more testing of evidence would be done.
Harward was certain the testing would not find his DNA but knew the Innocence Project would have to prove that to be sure.
“Once that happened, they were all in,” he said. “We all kind of celebrated.”
Armed with the test results, his lawyers filed a petition for a writ of actual innocence with the Virginia Supreme Court in early March.
On March 18, he got another call. Not only did the further testing exclude him, but the Virginia Department of Forensic Science also had a cold hit: The genetic profile in sperm left at the scene was from Jerry L. Crotty, a former shipmate and a career criminal who died in an Ohio prison in 2006.
Harward sympathizes with the rape victim and her loss; he said he knew she had nothing to do with his wrongful conviction.
‘You’re a free man’
Things started happening fast after the cold hit.
The original innocence petition to the Virginia Supreme Court was amended. On April 6, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced it was clear after studying the court files, petition and DNA results that Harward was innocent and that a tragic mistake had been made.
The Supreme Court usually takes weeks if not months to consider such requests before acting. But on April 7, less than 24 hours after Herring announced his office was joining the petition to exonerate Harward, the justices granted the writ and caught everyone by surprise.
Harward’s lawyers and others had to scramble to get to the prison for his release set for 1 p.m. the next day.
Harward initially had no idea what had happened. He was told by prison staff that he was being transferred to the medical department. “I said, ‘I don’t want stay in medical. I’ve stayed back there. It’s the walking dead. I want to be in (regular) population.’ They said, ‘No.’
“Next thing I know I’m up front where inmates don’t go, talking to the warden. He said, ‘You’re a free man. I can’t put you back in population. It’s a security risk.’ ”
Harward’s lawyers told him what to expect at his release the next day, including an appearance before the news media. “I got a couple of hours sleep, but all night long I’m thinking about this press conference. How am I going to do this? That’s why I said, ‘I’m lucky I don’t wet myself.’
“I did do some walking and practicing. A lot of it wasn’t just off the cuff. There was certain things I wanted to say, and I wanted to get them in there somehow.”
The next day as he walked out of Nottoway Correctional Center into sunshine, he shook hands with two correctional officers entering the building.
“I wish I hadn’t done that,” he said last week. “They’re correctional officers, and I just spent 30-something years and they’re supposed to be our enemy to a certain extent. And I’m thinking about the guys back in the prison — what they’re going to say and think even though I’m out.”
“I was just so nervous,” he said about the news conference. “There was things I wanted to say I couldn’t say, and there was things I wanted to say I’d forgotten to say. It was all nerves. I was trying to talk my way out of a bad spot, even though it was a great, wonderful spot.”
The news conference over, he climbed into a van with his brother and sister-in-law, and they headed for a restaurant in Farmville for lunch with his lawyers.
“I had a big $10 cheeseburger — a $10 cheeseburger — but it had all kinds of stuff with it,” he said.
Before eating, he got a call from Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, who told him, “ ‘You’re out now. Pay close attention to what you eat. Don’t eat a lot. Eat small amounts. Don’t eat real spicy food.’
“There was so much going on. The lawyers were on their phones and texting people, and I was waiting on a phone call from the attorney general.” Herring also called before Harward went to work on the cheeseburger.
Amid the emotion of the moment, Harward managed a quip that elicited a laugh from Herring. “After he got done apologizing, I said, ‘I’m sorry about one thing.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I’m going to North Carolina, so I can’t vote for you.’ ”
‘It’s overload trying to keep up’
The meal over, Harward and his family took off for Greensboro, where he has a bedroom at his brother Sonny’s house. The catching up has been a whirlwind — he is getting acquainted with a half-dozen nephews, who have a dozen children of their own, all of them in the area.
“I’m just starting to grasp all this information. I mean, it’s overload trying to keep up with everything that’s going on,” he said.
One chore was arranging for medical care from the Veterans Administration for ongoing health issues. Another was getting some sort of state identification, so he can open a bank account.
“You can’t get identification from here unless you got identification from there. But I can’t get identification from there, because I don’t have this identification,” he said.
He carried around newspaper stories to show officials. The stories generated some sympathy but did not help in his pursuit of identification. He finally got proper ID on Tuesday and was able to open a bank account.
He’s learning to use a cellphone but hasn’t obtained a computer.
“People say, ‘Well, Mr. Harward, if you will contact us at www.’ And I say, ‘I don’t got a www. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have one.’ So I’ve got to learn all that stuff,” he said.
There have been other adjustments and surprises. Three days after his release, he was sitting in a restaurant with his brother. “One of the waitresses came up over my shoulder to pour my tea, and I freaked because she was right on top of me. In prison, you got that 3-foot area around you that, you know, is your space.
“When she came and done that, it kind of startled me. I wasn’t expecting it,” he said.
“Just going to a grocery store and they got all those monitors and things, and I’m standing there with my money trying to figure things out. First few times I had to get Sonny to buy stuff, because it just overwhelmed me.
“I’d never been in a Walmart until last Saturday. That was a trip, and I kept losing my brother. It was comical, because I was stopping and gaga-ing at everything. I’m looking at every little thing on the shelves.”
He had to keep asking his brother to slow down. “Next thing you know, I’m going to be sitting on the floor crying like a child: ‘Where’s my brother?’ ”
New technology is everywhere, he has discovered. “Being in prison, everything’s simple and sturdy and tough, so it can’t be broken off to use as a weapon. It’s old-school,” he said.
“So, when I go to the bathroom I have to stand there and study how this works,” he said. “Why don’t they have handles on the toilets anymore? What was wrong with handles? I’ll get up and walk away, and the toilet will flush. Scare me to death. ...
“You can’t pull out a paper towel — you got to wave to get a paper towel out. And I’m trying to work the sink, and that’s not a handle. You got to wave your hand in front of the sink.”
Keeping a comfortable space around remains important. Crowds in unfamiliar situations can be unsettling. In prison, he said, “I was in with crowds of people, but they were people I knew. I knew (who) they were, what they could do, what they couldn’t do, what they were going to do.”
He is living rent-free with his brother, the Innocence Project is helping him out with some daily expenses, and he has some savings from a disability he suffered in the Navy. He and his lawyers would not comment on whether they will seek wrongful imprisonment compensation from the General Assembly under an established formula or sue officials.
Harward recognizes he is fortunate to have relatives willing to help him. “If I didn’t have my family — which a lot of guys don’t — I would have stepped out that front door and been on my own.”
While visiting his parents’ grave site last week, he said, “I just hate the fact I wasn’t here for ’em, been helpful in their older years.”
His bedroom at his brother’s house is the same one occupied by his father after he moved back from Floyd County when he became ill.
The room is neat and tidy. “I live in that little room. I’ve got snack items. I’ve got that little TV,” he said. He is not in there all the time. “I’m out watering the flowers and cleaning the house just to have something to do.”
But, he explained, “it’s kind of like a nice cell until I can start getting touchy-feely with people.”
‘I’m angry at those people’
While thrilled to be cleared of the heinous crimes and free, Harward said he remains upset about what happened to him in Newport News so many years ago.
“I’m angry at those people that locked me up, that I call the criminals: the detectives and that serologist, the judge and the prosecutor,” he said.
Harward has outlived the judge, the prosecutor and the lead detective. And the Virginia Department of Forensic Science has begun a review of the cases handled by the serologist who left the department after more than 30 years on the job.
On Monday, Harward relaxed near the shore of the 800-acre lake in High Point. “To have a tree to shade you — one of God’s gifts — it’s great,” he said.
“You don’t miss the water till the well runs dry, so just little things like that. You don’t have ’em, and you miss ’em.”
A man fishing from a dock walked by.
“Hey, how you doing? How’s the fishing today?” Harward asked.
“Not doing anything at all,” responded the fisherman who, it turns out, is the same age as Harward and has been retired for 10 years. “Life has been good,” he said.
Harward agreed. “Tell me about it. Life is beautiful. It’s a great day today, too. It’s Monday, and we’re in a park.”