Mississippi Supreme Court Vacates Capital Murder Conviction Obtained With Bite Mark Comparison Evidence
On February 2, 1992, smoke from a small, smoldering fire led to the discovery of the body of Georgia Kemp, 84, in her house. An autopsy determined that she had been beaten, raped, strangled, and stabbed; however, no bite marks were found on her body, which was subsequently buried.
Three days later, the doctor who performed the autopsy requested an additional study of Kemp’s body, which was exhumed and examined under ultraviolet light by Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist. He discovered otherwise invisible marks on the right breast, right side of the neck, and right arm. He used dental impressions of Eddie Lee Howard, Jr.’s teeth to perform a “wound duplication test with ink” and determined that the mark on the right breast was “without doubt inflicted by” and the other marks were “consistent with” Howard’s teeth.
Howard was charged with capital murder. At trial, he made “strange comments” and exhibited “numerous incidents of paranoid behavior,” but the court did not hold a competency hearing.
The evidence against him was that he lived two blocks away from Kemp; told a detective that “the case was solved” and that he “had a temper and that’s why this happened;” testimony that he liked to bite his girlfriend on the neck and breast during intercourse; he smelled of burnt wood or clothes the day after the murder; and Dr. West’s testimony, which was within the ABFO guidelines at the time.
West testified that the marks on Kemp’s neck and arm were “consistent with” Howard’s teeth, and the mark on her breast was an “identical” match to Howard’s dental impression. He said he had “no doubt” Howard left the mark.
Howard was convicted of capital murder, sentenced to death, and ultimately unsuccessful in his appeals and postconviction relief attempts.
In 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted his request for postconviction DNA testing. No male DNA or semen was found on Kemp’s clothing or bedsheets or in her sexual assault kit or fingernail scrapings, but male DNA not belonging to Howard was discovered on the blade of the knife used to stab her.
In 2013, the ABFO revised its guidelines to prohibit testimony that a bite mark can be matched to an individual in cases such as Howard’s, where the potential number of suspects is unknown.
Another revision in 2016 banned such testimony in all cases.
In 2015, Kemp filed a motion to vacate his sentence based on the DNA evidence and the new ABFO guidelines. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that Kemp’s DNA evidence did not warrant a new trial because it did not identify “a different perpetrator” and that evidence challenging bite mark comparison was not new evidence. With the assistance of court-appointed attorney William Tucker Carrington, Kemp appealed.
The en banc Mississippi Supreme Court concluded that, contrary to the ruling of the trial court, a reasonable juror could “surely conclude that the presence of another man’s DNA on the knife blade” pointed to a different perpetrator. Additionally, the changes in the ABFO guidelines that prohibited West’s testimony “matching” Howard’s dental impression to the bite mark was new evidence and relevant — especially in light of the fact that West touted his ABFO credentials during his testimony.
The Court held that, “[g]iven the inadmissibility of Dr. West’s identification of Howard as the biter, the absence of forensic evidence putting Howard at the scene of the crime, and the newly discovered presence of another man’s DNA on the murder weapon,” a jury would probably find Howard not guilty in light of the new evidence.
Related legal case
Howard v. State
|Cite||2020 Miss. LEXIS 293 (2020)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|