A more than 20-year-old murder case took a new step Tuesday as a post-conviction relief hearing began for Eddie Lee Howard.
Howard, 62, is on death row at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman after being convicted in May 2000 for capital murder. He was accused in the 1992 murder and rape of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp.
Howard’s 2000 conviction was the second time he faced trial for the crime. He was previously convicted and sentenced to death in May 1994. The Mississippi Supreme Court in 1997 overturned that conviction, finding that the trial court erred in allowing Howard to represent himself in a death penalty case. The high court also found that Howard’s waiver of counsel was not voluntary.
Kemp, according to court documents, was killed in her Columbus home on Feb. 2, 1992, after being “savagely beaten, choked, bitten, raped, stabbed and killed.”
Howard’s conviction relies on the testimony of forensic odontologist Michael West, of Hattiesburg. During both of Howard’s trials, West testified the bite marks left on Kemp’s body matched dental impressions taken from Howard.
The marks were the only piece of physical evidence linking Howard to the crime, according to court documents.
The bite marks on Kemp’s body, according to court documents, were not noted during the initial autopsy performed on Feb. 3, 1992, by medical examiner Steven Hayne. West requested additional study on Feb. 6, 1992, and Kemp was exhumed the next day.
Documents say bite marks were found on Kemp’s neck, arm and breast.
Howard is being represented by the Mississippi Innocence Project, which is housed at the University of Mississippi.
Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said the Innocence Project requested for Howard’s conviction to be vacated and the case to be not tried again. Failing that, the Innocence Project is requesting a new trial. Carrington said it’s possible the court could choose not to grant relief.
“Generally speaking, we’ve asked for a new trial based on the results of DNA evidence and the evolution for the science around bite marks over the years,” Carrington said. “Specifically, we know that bite marks have been responsible for 25, 26 wrongful convictions, including three here in Mississippi — all done by (West).”
Howard’s hearing is being held before 16th Circuit Judge Lee Howard.
Howard was present in the courtroom Wednesday.
‘Everybody makes mistakes’
Wednesday’s hearing consisted solely of testimony from Iain Pretty, a professor of dentistry from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.
The Mississippi Innocence Project called Pretty to testify as an expert on bite marks as a matter of forensic dentistry.
Pretty said views within the forensic dentistry community have changed drastically since the 1990s and early 2000s, when bite marks were seen as valid means of identification.
“What was apparent was we were building on the building blocks of bite marks and expanding the discipline, yet no one had gone back to see whether or not there was a fundamental scientific underpinning for what we were doing,” Pretty said from the witness stand. “There simply wasn’t.”
Pretty also referenced a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that bite marks could not be used to reliably identify an individual.
“They said there was nothing in the literature that supports the taking of a human bite mark in the skin and pairing it and linking it to an individual,” Pretty said.
Pretty said it can be particularly difficult to rely on bite marks on a corpse that’s been exhumed, as Kemp was, because of possible distortion in the time since the wound was inflicted.
Pretty said he was familiar with West’s work, calling him “one of the great advocates” for bite marks at the time. He said West was seen as a pioneer in the field. But, Pretty said, as scientific evidence turned against bite marks — and as more and more wrongful convictions emerged from cases built on bite mark evidence — West’s reputation began to fall.
“I think everybody makes mistakes,” Pretty said. “But the challenge of a forensic scientist is to revisit those decisions and look at them again in the light of new evidence and determine what that review might change.”
In June, the Clarion Ledger, a newspaper in Jackson, reported that West, during a 2012 deposition, said that the practice isn’t reliable.
“I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis,” West was quoted as saying. “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”
Jason Davis, director of criminal appeals for the Mississippi Attorney General’s office, asked Pretty if individual mistakes, such as those in convictions in more than two-dozen wrongful conviction cases that have been overturned, invalidate bite marks.
“What we are talking about today is not one mistake,” Pretty said. “I’m not even sure we’re talking about mistakes. We’re talking about fundamental underlying science not supporting what has happened.”
West was present during Wednesday’s hearing. He is expected to testify this week, according to Carrington.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.