The Innocence Project and the
Mississippi Innocence Project
filed a motion
in the Mississippi Supreme Court today urging the court to vacate the capital murder conviction and death sentence of Eddie Lee Howard, Jr., based on new DNA evidence and improper bite mark analysis. Dr. Michael West, the forensic dentist who provided the only physical evidence linking Howard to the crime and who served as an expert in four other cases where the defendants were later found to be innocent, now maintains that the identification of suspects through bite mark analysis is entirely unreliable. Similarly, the American Board of Forensic Odontology, the certifying board for forensic dentists, now concedes that it is impossible to identify a defendant from bite mark analysis where the universe of potential suspects is unknown. Male DNA recovered from the murder weapon excludes Howard as the source, and other testing undermines West’s assertions that the victim was bitten.
New York Times
reported that in the more than 30years since forensic dentistry was popularized during the televised trial of serial murderer Ted Bundy, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is prone to bias and unreliable.
Howard, who has been on death row for the past two decades, could join the 18 people across the country that have already been proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing after serving time on death row.
reports: “Still, without glaring new proof of innocence, courts have been reluctant to reopen cases based on even the most dubious of dental claims, leaving scores more defendants with questionable convictions to languish in prison or on death row, said Chris Fabricant, the Innocence Project’s director of strategic litigation.”
Howard was twice convicted of the 1992 murder of Georgia Kemp, who was murdered in her home. His first conviction was reversed by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which found that the trial court erred in allowing Howard to represent himself at his own death penalty trial. But in both the first and second trials, the prosecution was based on West’s testimony and statements allegedly made by Howard to law enforcement. Howard, who has struggled with severe mental health issues, never confessed to the crime, but allegedly told a detective after his arrest that “the case was solved.” He told police to investigate a handful of other people but, instead, the medical examiner had the victim’s body exhumed so West could look for bite marks. Without showing any evidence of his findings, West testified “to a reasonable medical certainty” that Howard was the biter.
Throughout his three-decade career, West investigated more than 5,200 deaths and more than 300 bite marks. Two years ago, his thinking shifted drastically and he indicated in a 2012 deposition that bite mark analysis was open to error, and that with the availability of DNA testing it should not be used in court.
In 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Howard the right to conduct DNA testing on crime scene evidence, which included several swab sticks, most likely from the rape kits, as well as external, vaginal and oral/anal swabs; a butcher knife suspected to be the murder weapon; a random box of matches, knee-high nylons; a pair of house slippers; a nightgown belonging to the victim; the telephone severed telephone cord and the sheets from the victim’s bed. The analysts were unable to find male DNA on any of the evidence except the knife, which contained a small amount of male DNA on the blade that did not belong to Howard.
Howard’s lawyers argue in the motion that given the new revelations regarding bite mark analysis as well as the new DNA evidence excluding Howard as the source of DNA recovered on the knife used in the murder, Howard’s conviction should be overturned.
A copy of the legal papers filed today is available
. Howard is represented by Tucker Carrington and Will McIntosh of the Mississippi Innocence Project, as well as Vanessa Potkin, senior staff Attorney, and Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation, of the Innocence Project.
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