A Mississippi man that sat on death row for over a quarter of a century has been freed and exonerated after the bite mark evidence that was used to convict him was discredited.
In 1992, 84-year-old Georgia Kemp was found dead in her home in Lowndes County, Mississippi. Her autopsy revealed that she had died from two stab wounds. Kemp also had injuries consistent with rape, but no visible bite marks.
Prosecutors retained Dr. Michael West as an expert witness. West is a forensic dentist known for his analysis of bite marks. Over a period of 15 years, West testified in 71 trials in 9 states. West examined Kemp’s body with ultraviolet light and found bite marks, which he testified matched the teeth of Eddie Lee Howard.
Howard was indicted on the charge of capital murder with the underlying felony of rape. He was convicted in 1994 and sentenced to death. In 1997, Howard’s conviction and sentence were reversed and remanded for a new trial.
In May 2000, Howard’s second trial began. Dr. West testified again, stating that he was certain to a reasonable degree of medical certainty that Howard had left the bite marks found on Kemp’s body. Howard was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. The conviction was upheld in numerous appeals and post-conviction relief proceedings.
In December 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court allowed Howard to file another post-conviction petition for relief due to new DNA testing of physical evidence that had excluded Howard as a source.
The court reviewed the DNA evidence and also Dr. West’s bite-mark testimony. Dr. West’s techniques have come under criticism for overstating his findings and testifying on subjects where he had limited expertise. Dr. West’s practices were investigated and he was eventually suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontology. Dr. West has also stated in a 2012 deposition that he no longer believes in bite-mark evidence and that it should not be used in court cases. That testimony is small comfort to the 71 defendants who were subjected to Dr. West’s unreliable opinions.
The court noted that there has been a change in the scientific understanding of the reliability of identification through bite marks since Howard’s conviction. Today, bite mark testimony would be inadmissble evidence. The court also concluded that Dr. West’s identification of Howard was the most important evidence presented at trial. Given the inadmissibility of bite mark evidence and the fact that that the DNA of another man was present on the murder weapon, the court found that a jury would probably not find Howard guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
In August 2020, the Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Howard’s conviction and sentence and remanded his case for a new trial.
In December 2020, Howard was released from death row and on January 8, 2021, Howard was officially exonerated. Lowndes County District Attorney Scott Colom decided not to retry Howard’s case, noting that there was not enough evidence to convict Howard “beyond a reasonable doubt” and stating that “My ethical and legal responsibility requires that I dismiss the case.”