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Debunked Bite-Mark Comparison Evidence: Wrongfully Convicted Man Freed After Spending Over 25 Years on Death Row

Kemp was murdered in her Lowndes County, Mississippi, home in 1992. The perpetrator also set fire to her home. The autopsy revealed that Kemp died from two stab wounds. Kemp also had injuries consistent with rape, but there were no visible bite marks. Howard was initially convicted in 1994. That conviction, too, was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1997. Right from the beginning, investigators lacked any credible suspects. Despite multiple alibi witnesses for the investigators’ originally established time of the crimes, Howard was arrested without reasonable suspicion of his guilt. The State undermined Howard’s alibi witnesses by using alleged expert arson testimony that changed the original time frame of the fire to one not covered by his alibi. John Lentini is one of the country’s top arson investigators, and he concluded that the arson expert’s testimony had “no basis in known data, research or science.”

In 2000, Howard was tried and convicted the second time based on the expert testimony of Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who was sought out by prosecutors from around the country during the 1980s and 1990s for his expert testimony on bite-mark evidence.

West claimed the bite marks on Kemp’s body were revealed under ultraviolet light and matched Howard’s teeth. The 1979 trial of Ted Bundy propelled the use of bite-mark evidence into the mainstream. Bite-mark evidence had been used in hundreds of cases during that period. “As it started to gain acceptance into the courtroom, nobody was really challenging the scientific validity of it,” said Mary Bush, a professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Dental Medicine.

Dr. Bush is also an expert in forensic dentistry and bite-mark analysis and served as expert witness for Howard in 2016. The method is now criticized by experts like Bush, who view it as unreliable. She says this is because the human skin is elastic and the marks quickly become to distorted to reliably be matched to a suspect, adding, “Unless you have DNA, you really can’t use a bite mark to identify somebody.”

During the same period in 2000, the Lowndes County District Attorney was Forrest Allgood. Allgood had two other convictions overturned that had been based on bite-mark evidence analysis and expert testimony. Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer also were exonerated after their convictions were challenged.

“Howard was sentenced to death based on unfounded forensics with no physical evidence or witnesses to the crime,” said Vanessa Potkin, one of Howard’s Innocence Project attorneys. Potkin concluded her statement by saying, “Like Howard, 21 other men and women on death row across the country have had their innocence proven by DNA, including Kennedy Brewer. Brewer, who is also a Black man, spent 15 years on Mississippi’s death row based on false bite-mark evidence. We know there are more innocent people currently on death row pleading for post-conviction relief. The death penalty is the most extreme and irreversible of punishment. Howard’s case is a prime example of why we cannot afford to use it when human error is still so prevalent in the criminal justice system.”

Howard’s case is a harrowing example of unreliable forensic evidence and wrongful convictions. Mississippi alone has had four convictions overturned based on the same discredited forensic methods. Howard is the 28th exoneration in the U.S. based on bite-mark evidence being discredited, reports Forensic magazine. In bizarre deposition testimony from 2012, even Dr. West stated he did not believe that bite-mark analysis should be given in court as evidence but would not admit a mistake in the Howard case.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken a powerful stance in rejecting junk science as the basis on which to put a man to death,” said M. Chris Fabricant, another of Howard’s attorneys with the Innocence Project. Fabricant added that, “We are thankful that the court has identified this breakdown in Howard’s case, ruling that debunked science has no place in our criminal justice system.”

Scott Colom is the current Lowndes County D.A., and he officially moved for the dismissal of Howard’s case after the opinion of the Mississippi Supreme Court was handed down. Colom says he agrees with the court’s opinion and will not be pursuing a conviction again because “there was nothing else putting Mr. Howard at the scene of the murder.”

“I want to say thanks to the many people who are responsible for helping to make my dream of freedom a reality. I thank you with all my heart, because without your hard work on my behalf, I would still be confined in that terrible place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, waiting to be executed,” Howard said to his panel of attorneys that included Potkin, Fabricant, Peter Neufeld, Dana Delger, all of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, and Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project. 

 

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