Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring says new DNA testing has proved that Keith Allen Harward is innocent of a brutal murder and rape in 1982. (Reuters)

Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) on Wednesday asked the state supreme court to declare a former sailor innocent in the 1982 rape of a Newport News woman and murder of her husband, saying DNA evidence proved he wasn’t the perpetrator.

Herring said new forensic tests showed that Keith Allen Harward, who has spent 33 years in prison, could not have been the person who broke into the couple’s home and committed the brutal attacks.

Harward, 59, was sentenced to life in prison after a jury in 1983 convicted him of beating Jesse Perron to death with a crowbar and raping the man’s wife as their three children slept in another room. Hair and semen samples failed to connect Harward to the crime, but two experts testified that bite marks on the woman’s body matched his dental records. Harward never admitted guilt.

“If the new scientific testing results had been available at the time of his trial, no rational trier of fact would have found proof of Harward’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Herring said Wednesday. “In this case, the Commonwealth got it wrong.”

Herring has joined Harward’s attorneys in asking the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence vacating Harward’s convictions. It could be several weeks before the court can take action, Herring said, but in the meantime, Harward can request a bail hearing in local court that would get him out of prison.

Attorneys for Harward weren’t immediately available for comment on Wednesday.

Herring’s request, made with the support of the Newport News prosecutor’s office, came after a state court in July ordered the Department of Forensic Science to conduct DNA tests of numerous pieces of evidence found at the crime scene, including cigarette butts and a towel the victim wrapped herself in after the attack.

The results exonerated Harward but identified another sailor from the area, Jerry L. Crotty, as the likely perpetrator, according to the attorney general’s brief to the state supreme court. Crotty died in 2006 in an Ohio prison where he was serving time for a 2002 abduction, Herring said in the brief. The chances that the DNA profile belonged to someone other than Crotty were “greater than the world population,” he said.

The new findings in Harward’s case could have broader consequences not just in Virginia, but nationally, said Brandon Garrett, a University of Virginia law professor and expert in wrongful convictions.

“It’s going to have systemic repercussions for revisiting cases with outdated forensics in Virginia, but also hopefully stimulate a national discussion about forensics,” Garrett said. “People like Mr. Harward shouldn’t have to wait three decades.”

Garrett, who said he has followed Harward’s case closely, called Harward’s trial a “perfect storm of false forensics.”

“It’s more evidence that this bite-mark evidence should never be used in court,” Garrett said.