Don’t Believe the Bite

Eddie Lee Howard, Jr. has been on Mississippi’s death row for nearly two decades, convicted of the 1992 grisly murder of an 84-year-old woman named Georgia Kemp.

Absent any real leads or suspects, the police focused in on Howard, who had spent years in and out prison for attempted rapes.  In response to police question, the mentally ill Howard made statements that were allegedly incriminating, but also contradictory.

Then the police caught a break in the case.  Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist, got involved. West claimed to be able to match bite marks left on a human body with the teeth of the biter.

And in what can only be described as an extraordinary turn of events, three days after Ms. Kemp was buried, her body was exhumed so that Dr. West could look for bite mark evidence.  At trial, Dr. West claimed to have found three bites and testified that Mr. Howard was the biter “to a reasonable medical certainty.”  Interestingly, the medical examiner who reviewed Kemp’s body at the time it was found did not note any bite marks in his initial autopsy – an omission that seems rather glaring if the bites in fact had been present on the skin. There were no photos of the bite marks from the exhumed body, and no DNA evidence from those marks.

The ability of forensic odontologists such as Dr. West to effectively engage in bite mark comparison has been repeatedly called into question.  The well-known 2009 National Academy of Sciences report was scathing in its criticism of bite mark matching, and found no scientific evidence that evidence from a bite mark could identify a particular individual to the exclusion of all others.

But even if West saw what he claims to have seen, his testimony is suspect under the circumstances in this case.  Bite-marks “on the skin will change over time” and “can be distorted by the elasticity of the skin, the unevenness of the surface bite, and swelling and healing.”  In other words, whatever Dr. West saw on Kemp’s body after it was buried for days and exhumed may reveal very little about her attacker on the day she was killed.

Yet, West’s testimony was critical because it was the only evidence to directly tie Howard to Kemp.

Bad bite-matching testimony has resulted in the wrongful conviction of far too many people.  Ray Krone from Arizona was sentenced to death based, in large part, on bite-matching testimony.  Known as the “snaggle-tooth” killer, Krone was exonerated from death row after DNA proved he could not have been the killer.

There may be glimmer of hope for Howard, who is now being represented by the Mississippi Innocence Project.  At a hearing that began last week, a Mississippi judge considered arguments that the bite-mark evidence in Howard’s case was scientifically unreliable. Even West has distanced himself from the viability of bite mark comparison.

Howard is sitting on death row for a conviction that rests on a largely discredited science, under circumstances that were highly questionable.  Bite mark matching evidence is dubious under the best of circumstances, and seemingly fantastical under those presented in his case. Twenty-years on Mississippi’s death row is surely long enough for the state to sort out fiction from fact, and bite marks from apparent innocence.

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