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how much is three decades of wrongful incarceration worth in virginia?

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how much is three decades of wrongful incarceration worth in virginia?


keith allen harward, center right, waves he walks with people from the innocence project as he is released from nottoway correctional facility in burkeville, va., on april 9, 2016. (daniel sangjib min/richmond times-dispatch via associated press)

in the early hours of sept. 14, 1982, teresa perron awoke abruptly to a loud noise. the noise, she quickly discovered, was the sound of an intruder beating her husband, jesse perron, over the head with a crowbar. seeing her awake, the attacker threw teresa from her bed and, while pinning her down with his legs, continued to assail her husband.

after threatening to harm the perrons’ three children if she refused to cooperate, the attacker — described later as a white male wearing a white sailor’s uniform bearing an insignia of “three nested v’s” — proceeded to sexually assault teresa for the next several hours.

when the horrifying ordeal finally ended, the attacker left behind a bounty of inculpating evidence, including seminal fluid, saliva, pubic hair, a cigarette butt and an empty pepsi bottle. investigators even retrieved strands of the assailant’s hair clutched in jesse perron’s hands.

the “smoking gun,” however, was a series of bite marks left by the assailant on teresa’s legs. by comparing photographs of the bite marks to dental records taken of every seaman stationed aboard the nearby uss carl vinson, investigators identified keith harward as the likely perpetrator. a wax mold created by two forensic odontologist confirmed with “reasonable medical certainty” harward caused the bite marks on teresa’s legs, and a security guard at the shipyard confirmed that he had seen a person bearing resemblance to harward wearing a blood-stained uniform entering the shipyard on the night of the attack.

for the prosecution, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. they had their man.

they were wrong.

after serving 33 years of a life sentence, harward found exoneration when new dna testing failed to find harward’s genetic profile in sperm recovered at the crime scene. instead, the sperm matched the genetic profile of jerry crotty, harward’s then-shipmate. harward was released from nottoway correctional center on april 8, 2016.

now, harward is seeking compensation for his wrongful three-decade confinement. the commonwealth aims to do just that through hb 1650, a bill introduced by del. rip sullivan (d-arlington-mclean), which offers harward nearly $1.6 million in exchange for harward agreeing to release “any present or future claims” against the commonwealth. the bill passed the house in january and unanimously passed out of the senate finance committee monday.

the bill is a step in the right direction, but it falls far short of rectifying 33 years of lost time.

first, consider the commonwealth’s culpability, which well exceeds honest mistakes or carelessness. according to the bill, the commonwealth “suppressed critical serological evidence excluding mr. harward as the source of body fluids found on the victim.” police investigators failed to disclose they had “hypnotized” the security guard (who was the only person to identify harward at trial) and the victim, which changed “certain key components of [the guard’s and victim’s] respective testimonies.” the bite-mark evidence has been discredited as scientifically invalid by the american board of forensic odontology.

there is also the irreparable harm harward suffered. as a result of his conviction, harward endured “numerous painful physical injuries, systemic health conditions, and severe mental anguish and emotional distress and has lost countless opportunities, including the opportunity to marry and have children.” his career prospects are virtually nonexistent, given that harward is an “impoverished man, with no job skills or career prospects and no savings or accumulated pension benefits, and does not qualify for social security benefits” as a result of his conviction.

for this agony, harward will get exactly $1,548,439 and a $10,000 credit to attend “career and technical training within the virginia community college system.” for perspective, that’s roughly half of what virginia tech’s former football coach made in his last season.

but wait — there’s more. harward will not receive his compensation all at once. upon releasing the commonwealth from all future claims, harward will receive a lump sum of $309,688. the remaining balance will go toward purchasing an annuity for mr. harward that cannot be “sold, discounted, or used as securitization for loans and mortgages.”

to recap: 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.

the general assembly should amend this bill to give mr. harward what he is owed. in its current form, the commonwealth’s offer is not a sincere attempt to make harward whole; it is injustice on the cheap.

thomas wheatley is a regular contributor to all opinions are local. follow him on twitter @tnwheatley.