The expert whose bite-mark evidence led a jury to put Eddie Lee Howard Jr. on Mississippi’s death row now believes such evidence should be tossed.
“I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis,” forensic odontologist Michael West of Hattiesburg testified in a 2012 deposition. “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”
On Tuesday, lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project will argue to the state Supreme Court that Howard deserves a new trial. The state says justices have already rejected these arguments in a previous appeal.
Howard, who turns 62 on Saturday, remains on death row, convicted of the 1992 rape and stabbing death of 84-year-old Georgie Kemp of Columbus.
Recently performed DNA tests reveal the presence of male DNA (other than Howard) on the bloody knife found at the murder scene. DNA tests on the nightgown and the rape kit have excluded Howard as well.
There was no DNA evidence presented at his trial. Instead, West became the major witness to link Howard to the crime, testifying a bite mark he found on her body — after it had been exhumed —uniquely matched Howard’s teeth.
West told jurors he could tell from another mark that Kemp was “fighting for her life” when this bite was inflicted. It was unclear how he supposedly knew this.
For many years, much of West’s work went unchallenged, and he bragged of his accuracy, once declaring his error rate was “something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ.”
But in the years since, his work has been discredited. His bite-mark identifications implicating Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer led to their wrongful convictions.
Together, the two Mississippi men spent a total of more than three decades behind bars until DNA proved them innocent and identified the real culprit, Justin Albert Johnson, now imprisoned for raping and killing the two 3-year-old girls.
Even after their exonerations in 2008, West insisted to The Clarion-Ledger that his bite-mark identifications of Brooks and Brewer were correct.
For decades, courts recognized him as an expert in bite marks, wound patterns, gunshot residue, crime scene reconstructions, blood spatters, ultraviolet photography and child abuse.
In trial after trial, he told jurors dental impressions were as unique as fingerprints, giving jurors the idea crimes could be solved strictly by identifying bite marks on bodies.
In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report, concluding there was no basis in science for forensic odontologists to conclude someone is “the biter,” excluding all other suspects.
Four years later, the American Board of Forensic Odontology changed its guidelines to bar such testimony.
A recent study by the group found wide variances in opinions among experts studying photographs of bite marks, many of them disagreeing on patterns and even if they were human bite marks.
An Associated Press analysis in 2013 found at least two dozen defendants convicted or charged with rape and murder using bite-mark evidence have been exonerated since 2000 — many after spending more than a decade in prison.
West has told The Clarion-Ledger the science behind bite marks “is not as exact as I had hoped.”
On Feb. 2, 1992, fire fighters responded to a fire, and when they did, they found Kemp dead and partly undressed in her Columbus home.
She had been beaten, stabbed to death and the trauma suggested she had been sexually assaulted. A rape kit found no semen.
Six days later, authorities charged Howard, a sex offender just released from prison, with the crime.
After sitting in jail a week, Howard, described in documents as having mental issues, wrote a note to a deputy, wanting to be taken to the crime scene, saying it “might bring back some memories to him” and that “the case was solved.”
But when Howard was taken there, he told the officer that it “did not bring back any memories.” Howard again repeated that “the case was solved” and that “five or six other individuals” had been involved and to “keep investigating the case.”
An officer testified Howard asked if he thought he was crazy: “I said, ‘No man, I don’t think you’re crazy,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m not. I’m not crazy. I had a temper, and that’s why this happened.’ ”
The officer testified he believed this was a confession.
After working with Howard, his court-appointed lawyers talked of their client’s paranoid behavior, one of them telling the judge, “I’m not sure he’s capable of assisting in his own defense much less carrying his own defense out … I do not feel that this defendant is in touch with reality.”
Despite that, the judge let Howard represent himself at trial, ending in his conviction and death sentence.
The trial proved such a disaster the state Supreme Court in 1994 ordered a new trial. Justices concluded Howard was incompetent to represent himself and that numerous articles had raised questions about the reliability of bite-mark identification.
In the second trial, now represented by defense counsel, Howard heard a new witness, his former girlfriend Kayfen Fulgham testify that during sex, he sometimes bit her.
The day after the murder, she said Howard smelled “like burnt clothes or something, you know, wood, like smoke.”
When she asked Howard about it, she said “he just brushed it off.”
None of these claims can be found in her original two-page statement to police.
In his closing statement, District Attorney Forrest Allgood praised West as a visionary.
“The progress of mankind has been carried forward on the backs of people like Michael West,” he said. “The church threatened to burn Copernicus (actually Galileo) because he dared to say that the planets didn’t revolve around the earth. So it was with Michael West.”
The jury convicted Howard, and once again, he was sentenced to death.
This time on appeal, the state Supreme Court upheld the conviction, rejecting the claim that defense counsel had been incompetent in failing to call a single witness, including a witness to rebut West’s identification.
Three forensic odontologists, hired by the defense on appeal, concluded three bite marks West pointed out in this case aren’t visible in autopsy photographs, “nor were the alleged bite marks visible by the naked eye or noted in the autopsy report.”
Instead, West testified he saw the marks by using an ultraviolent light — a technique they questioned.
At trial, Howard’s defense lawyers failed to call any of his family to ask jurors to spare his life.
If they had, Howard’s sister, Pearlie Mae Howard, said she would have told jurors she “never knew Eddie to be violent or have a mean streak. … I never saw anything like that out of Eddie.”
New DNA tests conducted in Kemp’s murder could provide additional clues. The results have never been tested against other possible suspects.
Between 1996 and 1998, five other senior citizens were killed in their homes in Columbus.
Authorities discovered the body of 61-year-old Robert Hannah on Oct. 13, 1998, when his house caught on fire — the same as Kemp’s house. Two other victims were stabbed, just as Kemp was.
No one has ever been prosecuted for the killings.
If ever called to the witness stand again, West testified he would have to say that bite-mark identifications aren’t reliable enough to be used in court. “I can no longer rely on bite marks as a truth.”
Contact Jerry Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 961-7064. Follow @jmitchellnews on Twitter.