GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A Greensboro man who spent more than 30 years behind bars in Virginia for crimes he didn't commit says he cried when he ate a hot dog for the first time since his release.
"We went to Dairi-O in Kernersville, and I had a real hot dog. Not a chicken turkey hot dog. But a real hot dog with chili and onions and all that. And I cried. I did. I mean I'm getting emotional now thinking about it. You just -- you don't miss the water until the well runs dry," explained Keith Harward.
In 1982, he was working on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson near the city of Newport News, Virginia. The town was rocked by the vicious murder of a man and the rape of his wife. The victim recalled the suspect was wearing a Navy uniform, but never specifically identified Harward.
Harward was later convicted of the crimes. Experts in the trial testified his bite marks matched those on the victim's skin. He could have been given the death penalty but was spared.
"I could be dead right now," Harward said simply.
He never expected to live in the real world ever again. "It was me against the state of Virginia and the city of Newport News. And I was fighting crooks and criminals."
All these years later, the Innocence Project got involved.
They helped get Harward exonerated and released from prison. It wasn't just based on the unreliable bite mark evidence. DNA from the original crime also cleared him. It implicated Harward's former shipmate Jerry Crotty. He never even knew the man. Crotty died in jail years ago, serving time for unrelated crimes.
Harward's attorneys also uncovered that some evidence, specifically blood typing, was never revealed to the defense at the time of the trial.
"You know what Benjamin Franklin said, 'There's one thing worse than an expert. That's someone who thinks they're an expert.' And that's what these guys are," he said, referring to various people who testified at his trial.
Staff Attorney Dana Delger with the Innocence Project told FOX8 all 50 states still allow bite mark evidence in court. They said about two dozen people have now been cleared after wrongful convictions involving bite mark evidence.
Harward is back home in Greensboro, getting help from his family and readjusting to real life.
He said he's struggling to understand cell phones and new technology. He's shocked by how many drive-thrus are on every major road.
He can't help but wonder what might have been. "You know, I could have had kids. I could have been with my parents. There's so much stuff I could have done. I could have been employed and retired by now."
His parents both died while he was still in prison, but Harward says they never stopped fighting for him. They researched and hired lawyers and always knew he was innocent. "There is such thing as dying from a broken heart," he insisted.
So what will Harward do now, with the newfound freedom he desperately deserves? "I want to go to concerts. I want to go to art galleries. I want to go to the park and hang out and do stuff like that," he explained. "Everything will be alright. It'll be OK. Even this whole deal. Everything will be alright."
Virginia is one of 27 states that has a compensation law for wrongful convictions. Harward has not yet discussed his specific plans for seeking compensation.
He does believe cases nationwide that relied on bite mark evidence should be reviewed. He plans to work on such proposals with the Innocence Project in the future.