Dr. Michael West, the forensic expert who was best known for his analysis of bite marks, continues to cause controversy with his techniques. Most recently, his work on a Mississippi murder trial has come under scrutiny.
West is a forensic dentist, originally from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He became well known in the legal community as a teeth and bite mark analysis expert. He has also given testimony as an expert in crime-scene investigation, forensic photography, video enhancement, gunshot residue, wound patterns, bloodstain analysis, and the use of ultraviolet light for detecting evidence. Over a period of 15 years, West testified in 71 trials in 9 states.
West has been criticized for overstating his findings and testifying on subjects where he had limited expertise. Following ethical investigations into his practices, he resigned from the International Association of Identification in 1993 and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1994. West was investigated and suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontology.
West has numerous critics. Dr. Richard Souviron, a Miami forensic dentist has stated, “His results are beyond outrageous…He has hurt a lot of people.” James Starrs, professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University, has stated, “He is clearly a sore on the body of forensic science…He is forever going beyond what other scientists are willing or able to say.” Robert Kirschner, former deputy chief medical examiner for Cook County, Illinois, says West’s “results shouldn’t be admitted in any court.” Kirschner claims that West’s work violates every rule of scientific inquiry and investigation and that West has never been able to document anything he claims to have done.
Despite the controversy over West’s practices, he continues to be used as an expert witness at trial.
Since 2000, at least 17 people who were previously convicted of murder or rape based upon bite mark testimony have been exonerated. West was the expert in two of those cases.
Bite Mark Analysis History
Bite mark analysis began in 1954 when a dentist testified that a bite mark in a piece of cheese, left behind in a grocery store that had been robbed, matched the teeth of a man who had been found with 13 stolen silver dollars. The man was convicted.
In 1974, two dentists testified that a man’s teeth matched a bite mark on a murder victim’s body. The defense attorney fought the admissibility of the testimony, but the court allowed it because of the 1954 testimony about the cheese.
Recently, West was deposed in the matter of Eddie Lee Howard v. State of Mississippi. Howard was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 84-year-old woman in 1994. Howard’s conviction was partially based upon West’s bite mark testimony.
Years later, Howard’s attorneys were able to have DNA testing on the knife that was allegedly used to kill the woman that Howard had been convicted of killing. The tests excluded Howard as the source of the male DNA on that knife. With this newly discovered evidence, Howard’s attorneys were able to reopen some issues in the case, including a challenge to West’s credibility.
At the deposition, West was questioned by Chris Fabricant, the Director of Strategic Litigation at the Innocence Project in New York. West was an uncooperative witness, failing to review his original trial testimony and maintaining that he stood by his 1992 testimony.
Howard is being represented by Vanessa Potkin, Peter Neufeld, and Dana Delger of the Innocence Project in New York.