The post conviction relief hearing for a Lowndes County death row inmate convicted in a 25-year-old murder case ended Monday.
Lowndes County Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard has 60 days to rule in the case of 64-year-old Eddie Lee Howard, who was convicted in 2000 of the rape and murder of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp. The judge could vacate the conviction, order a new trial or uphold the previous conviction.
Kemp was found stabbed to death in her home in February 1992.
The Mississippi Innocence Project, housed at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, is representing Howard, arguing that the prosecution’s only physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime is bite mark testimony of Hattiesburg forensic odontologist Michael West.
Bite mark analysis, Innocence Project attorneys argued in briefs filed with the Mississippi Supreme Court, is a “pernicious pseudo science” that has been debunked since being used in cases in the 1990s and early 2000s. Attorneys also argue DNA found on the murder weapon does not match Howard’s.
At Monday’s hearing, the Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation director Chris Fabricant questioned West, who repeatedly defended his opinion that the bite marks he claimed to discover on Kemp’s body matched dental molds from Howard.
“I remember having my highest opinion as to the perpetrator who left the bite marks,” he said. “It was Eddie Lee Howard.”
When asked if he were aware DNA evidence from the crime had been tested, West said: “I find it to be a joke. You tested the blade, not the handle.”
West examined the body and found the bite marks after Kemp’s body had already been buried and exhumed. That examination was four days after the initial autopsy, and the medical examiner’s autopsy report had no mention of any bite marks, Fabricant said.
But West said the initial examiner probably didn’t see them because “minute” injuries often need to “age” and are not visible until after the body has dried out. He added the examiner also didn’t look at the body under ultraviolet light, which also would have helped see the injuries.
West entirely dismissed the idea that the marks he saw could have been caused by the first autopsy.
“If I had thought that the previous examination had damaged an area, I would not have included it in my analysis,” he said.
A more than yearlong hearing
The hearing ended more than a year after it began in May 2016, when Iain Pretty, a professor of dentistry from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, testified there was not a “fundamental scientific underpinning” for bite mark analysis and that the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2009 that bite marks cannot reliably identify individuals.
Howard’s case has been a legal tangle since his first trial in 1994, when Howard represented himself. The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the conviction in that case after finding the trial court had failed to hold an adequate competency hearing, according to Supreme Court documents.
Howard was convicted in a second trial in 2000. He has been on death row ever since.
In both trials, the prosecution used West’s analysis as evidence.