A bite-mark expert witness central to a 1994 conviction of a Mississippi man has since recanted his belief in the strength of his testimony, setting the stage for a possible reversal of conviction by the state Supreme Court this month. Although an expert recanting his testimony does not guarantee a new trial, the modern rejection of bite-mark analysis may carry significant weight in the death row appeal because of the value jurors placed on the evidence at the time of conviction.
Mississippi Man Convicted with Bite-Mark Expert Testimony
In 1992 police found the dead body of 84-year-old Georgie Kemp of Columbus, Georgia in her home. Kemp had been beaten, stabbed, and sexually assaulted by her assailant before succumbing to her wounds. After six days of investigation, police arrested Eddie Lee Howard, Jr., a sex-offender fresh out of prison, and accused him of committing the crime. Howard, who has been described as having mental deficiencies, did not directly confess to the crime, but told officers, “I had a temper, and that is why this happened.” During his first trial Howard was allowed to represent himself and was convicted without much effort from the prosecutors largely on the circumstantial evidence that he was not savvy enough to dispute.
In 1994, Howard was granted a new trial by the Mississippi Supreme Court and was not permitted to represent himself, forcing the prosecution to present stronger evidence that he committed the crime. Although there was no DNA left at the scene of Kemp’s murder, prosecutors called forensic odonatologist Michael West as a bite-mark expert witness to link Howard to the crime. During his testimony, West, who examined Kemp’s exhumed body, told jurors that the bite pattern uniquely matched Howard’s. Further, West told the jury that one of the bite marks indicated Kemp was “fighting for her life” at the time of the attack.
Prosecutors lauded West’s visionary work in the field of bite-mark analysis, going so far as to compare him to Galileo, and relied heavily on his expert testimony to earn a death sentence for Howard in 1994. In the intervening years, attorneys for Eddie Lee Howard have maintained his innocence, largely by pointing to a lack of DNA evidence and the occurrence of five similar crimes during the years Howard was in prison. As Howard’s attorneys prepare for what is likely his final chance at appeal this week, they have an additional piece of evidence for the state Supreme Court to consider: Michael West has recanted his belief in the value of bite-mark testimony.
Bite-Mark Analysis Discredited by Modern Science
Throughout the 1990’s Michael West proudly extolled the accuracy of his bite-mark analysis, going so far as to proclaim his error rate was “something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ.” With no one to challenge his analysis, West was used to help identify defendants using bite-mark analysis in a number of trials throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. The field of bite-mark identification was weakened in 2009 when the National Academy of Sciences submitted a report that rejected bite-mark identification as a reliable means of identifying a particular person from a pool of subjects.
The results of the 2009 study were reinforced four years later when the American Board of Forensic Odontology found wide variances among bite-mark experts tasked with using bite patterns to identify specific people. By 2013, the Associated Press reported that more than 20 defendants convicted of rape or murder using bite-mark evidence had been exonerated since the year 2000, suggesting that the field is no longer accepted as reliable evidence in criminal trials.
Bite-Mark Expert Witness Recants Key Testimony
Faced with the mounting evidence against bite-mark analysis, Michael West has since recanted his position as an expert in the field. During a deposition for the Eddie Lee Howard appeal in 2012, West told the court, “I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis. I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.” Based on this new position taken by the expert witness whose testimony linked Howard to the scene of Georgie Kemp’s murder, attorneys representing the death row inmate have argued that he is owed a new trial that fairly presents all reliable evidence against him.
Despite the recanting expert witness, overturning a capital murder conviction is a tall order and it remains to be seen whether or not the Mississippi Supreme Court is willing to go that far. The case was heard in front of the state court this week, and a decision is expected in the coming months.