33 YEARS IN PRISON FOR A CRIME HE DID NOT COMMIT
Imagine you are a 26 years old sailor docked at port. A murder and brutal rape is committed in the city where your ship is docked. The rape victim cannot identify her assailant but she does describe him as wearing a sailor’s uniform bearing the same insignia as your company. DNA samples are collected from the rape victim and a bite mark on her leg is photographed. The police investigation focuses on your ship and dental records are collected of all the sailors whose uniform carries the insignia identified by the victim. Your dental records apparently lead the police to suspect you and you are required to provide a dental impression. A forensic odontologist then identifies your teeth as the same teeth that left the bit mark on the victim’s leg. Despite your protestations of innocence, you are tired and convicted of the crime purely on the expert testimony that the bite mark was yours. You receive a life sentence.
During the ensuing years, you challenge the verdict in the appellate courts, staunchly maintaining your innocence. And indeed you are innocent of the crime!
Thirty-three years later, when you are 60 years old and both of your parents have died heartbroken by these events, you walk out of prison a free man. You don’t walk out because you have finished your time; you walk out because the state where you were convicted declares you innocent of the crime. Imagine! You just spent 33 years—the prime of your life—in prison for a crime you did not commit.
This is what just happened in Virginia. On April 7, 2016, Keith Allen Harward, 60, walked out of the Nottoway correctional center a day after the Virginia Supreme Court agreed that Mr. Harward was innocent. If it weren’t for the relentless work of the Innocence Project, he would still be sitting in prison today.
You see, the DNA evidence collected from the crime scene ultimately exonerated him. Turns out the DNA matched one of Mr. Harward’s shipmates, who died 10 years ago in an Ohio prison. You have to dig deep to understand why this DNA evidence wasn’t introduced at Mr. Harward’s trial. Granted back in 1982 when the trial took place, DNA science was not as reliable as it is now but the science was there. The prosecution maintains that the DNA results that finally exonerated Mr. Harward was not available in 1982. However, it seems clear that the prosecution based their case and obtained the conviction on bad science, namely the bite mark evidence. There was no other evidence that allegedly connected Mr. Harward to the crime and in fact, hair and semen samples failed to connect him to the crime.
Bite mark forensics are generally discredited by the research although prosecutors continue to use these experts. A 2013 investigation found at least 24 men convicted or charged with murder or rape based on bite marks have been exonerated in the U.S. since the year 2000. As Innocence Project attorney, Dana Delger, said, “We’ve learned nothing if we continue to use this evidence even though we know it has no basis in science.”
As I discussed in my last blog post, there are innocent people convicted and serving time—innocent people in our prisons—on the basis of false confessions obtained through coercion or trickery. There are also certainly innocent people doing time today, who were convicted on the basis of bite marks or other shoddy and unscientific evidence. Maybe it is all too often, maybe it is rare, but it seems that some prosecutors have little interest in justice, a conviction being the only goal and the juries are all too willing to go along.
f you have any questions about an arrest or conviction or any other criminal matter, please feel free to contact me to set up a confidential consultation without charge at www.bill@william Weinberg.com or phone me at 949-474-8008