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Junk Science Convicted an Innocent Sailor, DNA Exonerated Him Decades Later with the Help of the Innocence Project

by Jo Ellen Knott

 

Keith Harward, 67, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, a state whose motto is “To be, rather than to seem.” Unfortunately for Harward, he spent 33 years “seeming” to have a life after the state of Virginia wrongfully convicted the ex-sailor of a brutal murder and rape in September 1982 and sentenced him to life in prison.

            Harward's path in life took this tragic turn during his time in the United States Navy while stationed on the USS Carl Vinson. In 1982, a heinous crime shook Newport News, Virginia, implicating a fellow sailor, Jerry Crotty, in the rape of Teresa Perron, along with the crowbar assault on her husband that killed him. Although Crotty was the real perpetrator, Harward found himself caught in a web of wrongful accusations and faced a justice system blinded by flawed forensic evidence.

"I was wrongly convicted for 33 years," Harward recounts, reflecting on the expert witnesses who almost sealed his fate. Bite mark analysis, now labeled as "junk science, “was the cornerstone of his conviction. Six forensic dentists falsely claimed that Harward’s teeth matched bite marks left on Teresa Perron’s leg by Crotty. Despite initial dismissal due to lack of evidence after a dentist reviewed the dental records of Marines stationed to the Vinson at the time which excluded Harward, Harward became a suspect six months later when his ex-girlfriend told police he had bitten her during an argument.

At trial, the prosecution made its case on the testimony of two forensic dentists, Lowell Levine and Alvin Kagey, who claimed that Harward’s teeth matched photos of the bite mark left on Teresa Perron. Levine is known as one of the foremost experts in forensic bite mark analysis and became famous for his televised testimony in the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy.

After attorneys from the Innocence Project secured an exoneration for Harward three decades later by ordering DNA tests, Levine released a statement writing, “I certainly feel upset and quite disturbed at the result in this case.” Levine claimed he and Kagey had completely followed professional guidelines and that the evidence seemed to point toward a solid match. He concluded that the Harward case “should persuade all my colleagues to agree with the need for more scientific research and investigation.”  

One of Levine’s fellow forensic odontologists has done precisely just that. Mary Bush, forensic dentist at the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, published a study in the Journal of the California Dental Association in May 2023 warning that bitemark analysis is a flawed science that has led to the wrongful convictions. The associate professor began her study by mentioning that flawed bitemark analysis has led to at least 26 wrongful convictions including that of Keith Harward.

Bush and her researchers were able to disprove the assumptions that the arrangement of the human teeth in a mouth is unique and that those unique features transfer to the skin. To prove her point, she and a student took a mold of her teeth in 2006 and made bitemarks on 23 cadavers. None of the bitemarks were measurably identical. The National Institute of Standards and Technology agreed with Dr. Bush’s research and concluded in its 2022 report that "forensic bitemark analysis lacks a sufficient scientific foundation."

Eight years after his exoneration in 2016, Harward advocates for the wrongfully convicted. He travels around the country visiting law classes at major universities, speaking about the importance of truth and the process of finding it: "I have a unique life story, and by telling it I can, maybe, change the course of other innocent people's lives." Harward also advocates for fair compensation for exonerees and calls for systemic reforms within the justice system.

Harward is the subject of episode three of the Netflix series “The Innocence Files” and has been interviewed by NBC. In 2017 The Washington Post reported on Harward’s compensation: “In Virginia, 33 years of wrongful incarceration will get you a lump sum equivalent to $9,384 per year served, taxable annuity payments (the purchasing power of which significantly declines over time) and a small education grant insufficient to cover even the tuition and fees of most two-year degrees.”

 

Sources: Bladen Journal, Forensic, Innocence Project, New York Times, The Washington Post

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