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Thirty-Fourth Conviction Based on Bite Mark Forensics Overturned

by Kevin Bliss

Eddie Lee Howard, Jr. was the thirty-fourth prisoner whose case has been overturned because of the debunked pseudo-science of bite mark forensics. After 30 years in prison, the district attorney now has the choice whether to retry Howard or drop the charges.

Howard, a Black man, was arrested in 1992 in Columbus, Mississippi, for the murder of an elderly White woman. Dr. Steven Hayne performed the autopsies where he testified the second was required because there “was some question that there could be injuries inflicted by teeth.” After the second autopsy, he referred the case to Dr. Michael West, who used his patented method of exposing the body to ultraviolet light while wearing special glasses where he found bite marks he testified matched Howard’s teeth on the victim’s neck, arm, and breast. Howard was convicted and sentenced to death.

Represented by the Mississippi Innocence Project, Howard was granted in 2010 the right to have DNA analysis conducted on the evidence. Results excluded Howard from every piece of evidence tested. More importantly, DNA analysis found no saliva or male DNA on the victim’s nightgown where the underlying bite marks were said to have been found.

“The DNA testing also undermines Dr. West’s testimony that the victim was bitten,” Director of Post-Conviction Litigation at the Innocence Project Vanessa Potkin stated. “The lab analyzed the night shirt the victim wore when she was murdered, and no male DNA was found in the areas where West claimed she was bitten. The Supreme Court’s decision recognized that the new DNA was ‘intertwined’ with the bite mark testimony ‘because the new testing did not find Howard’s DNA in places it might have been left had Howard bitten the victim as Dr. West concluded.’”

Howard’s is the fourth case of bite-mark forensics overturned where the testimony of West and Hayne was found to be unreliable. “Not only have the ABFO [American Board of Forensic Odontology] guidelines changed, but Dr. West’s credibility also has been destroyed since Howard’s trial,” Justice James Kitchens wrote in his concurring opinion. “In the intervening years, West and his methodology have plunged to overwhelming rejection by the forensics community…. [The Mississippi Supreme Court] should not uphold a conviction and death sentence on the testimony of a proven unreliable witness, Dr. West.”

The district attorney now must decide if Howard will face murder charges given the new evidence. Innocence Project attorney Dana Delger said she expects a favorable outcome. 



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