State: Innocent man served 30 years in Newport News 'bite mark case'

Travis Fain
Contact Reportertfain@dailypress.com
Virginia says innocent man has spent 30 years in prison for murder, rape

A man twice convicted of rape and murder in a 1980s Newport News case that turned on bite mark comparisons has been exonerated by DNA evidence, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said Wednesday.

Keith Allen Harward, 60, is serving life in prison plus 65 years. DNA tests done within the last year point instead to his former shipmate aboard the USS Carl Vinson, a man who died 10 years ago in an Ohio prison.

“It is clear that Keith Harward is innocent,” Herring said.

Herring's office, along with the Newport News Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney, has backed a writ of actual innocence for Harward, which would have to be granted by the Virginia Supreme Court. Gov. Terry McAuliffe's administration is pursuing a potential pardon in addition to the writ, but that investigation is just underway.

Harward could leave prison before either issue is decided by requesting bail through the Newport News Circuit Court, where he was first convicted. Attempts to reach his attorneys Wednesday were not successful, but Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said he understands Harward has a medical issue he'd like to address before leaving state custody, which includes medical care.

Moran, like Herring, said he is sure of Harward's innocence.

“I stand by that DNA evidence,” Moran said. “If it exonerates him, I don't have any doubt.”

Herring said he spoke to a living victim in the case Wednesday but declined to go into detail. A man sneaked into the woman's bedroom in 1982 and killed her husband with a crowbar, according to a case summary that appears in a Wednesday court filing from the attorney general.

He then raped her repeatedly, threatening to “get” her three sleeping children if she didn't do as he said.

The attacker left visible bite marks on her thighs and calves, and those marks were Harward's downfall. A Newport News shipyard security guard reported seeing a sailor with a Carl Vinson badge and E-3 rank insignia enter the 50th Street gate early on the morning of the murder, wearing a uniform that seemed to be splattered in blood, court records state.

The victims' home was not far from the gate.

But the victim never identified her attacker.

She described a clean-shaven man, when Harward had a mustache, the attorney general's rundown states.

Teeth marks lead to Harward's conviction

In 1983, Harward appeared in court after being involved in an altercation with a woman he was accused of biting.

Later, a New York dentist matched Harward's teeth to marks on the victim in the 1982 assault.

His attorney at the time, Roy Lasris, said Wednesday that the marks indeed looked close.

Then, the shipyard security guard picked Harward out of a photo lineup. Two forensic odontologists testified that Harward left the bite marks on the victim's legs.

“They put two and two together and only got three,” Lasris said Wednesday.

The initial conviction was thrown out on a technicality. A second jury convicted Harward in 1986 on charges of first-degree murder, rape, forcible sodomy and robbery.

‘Proud of that case'

No one now at the Newport News Police Department was involved in the case, which was prosecuted during Commonwealth's Attorney Willard Robinson's lengthy tenure. Robinson has since died, as has the lead detective in the case, C.D. “Chuck” Spinner.

The crime became known as “the bite mark case,” and it was mentioned prominently in Daily Press articles marking Spinner's retirement, and then his death. A decorated detective, Spinner told reporters he believed Harward would have killed again had he not been caught.

He had dental impressions from the case bronzed and kept them.

“He was proud of that case,” Newport News Capt. Marvin Evans told the Daily Press upon Spinner's death in 2003.

The Warwick Kiwanis Club named Spinner outstanding police officer for his work on the case, which was believed to be the first capital conviction in Virginia based on bite mark evidence taken from a survivor.

Newport News police spokesman Lou Thurston said Wednesday he doesn't believe the department uses bite marks any more to make cases. Moran said the state crime lab doesn't use them because “it just doesn't achieve the level of certification … that would justify our Department of Forensic Science to use it.”

Lasris called it “simply bogus science.”

DNA tests suggest Harward is innocent

Harward's case was reopened by attorneys from the Innocence Project, which takes a second look at questionable cases, particularly when DNA evidence has been saved and new testing methods are available since the time of conviction.

They started new DNA tests in July 2015, and the initial analysis eliminated Harward as a DNA contributor. Subsequent tests on more items from the crime scene, which had been retained by the Newport News Clerk of Court, showed the same result.

They pointed to Jerry L. Crotty, who died in 2006 while serving time in Ohio for an abduction conviction and who was also a sailor on the USS Carl Vinson in 1982.

Last December, the city of Newport News and its insurers paid a $2 million settlement to another man who spent decades in prison on a wrongful murder conviction. David W. Boyce was convicted of capital murder and robbery in 1991 and sentenced to two life terms. He was released in 2013 after his convictions were reversed because police and prosecutors failed to share a crucial piece of evidence with his attorney. In that case, DNA evidence found at the crime scene did not match Boyce but matched a third man.

Fain can be reached by phone at 757-525-1759.

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