Bite evidence in doubt

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by : Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion Ledger

August 6, 2012

Since the 1980s, Hattiesburg dentist Michael West has raised his right hand and sworn dozens of times that bite marks on victims matched suspects.

He compared these bite marks to fingerprints, describing their unique characteristics to jurors. Most suspects he testified against went off to prison.

Now West rejects the very science he relied on to help put so many behind bars.

“I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis,” he said in a 2011 deposition obtained by The Clarion-Ledger. “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”

Two of those convicted in a 2001 aggravated assault case in which West testified, Leigh Stubbs and Tami Vance, are now receiving a new trial. They are both out on bond and will be arraigned today in Brookhaven.

Stubbs and Vance are charged with conspiring to steal drugs and cash and assaulting a traveling companion, Janet Kimberly Williams, who reported wounds to her head, breasts, vagina and buttocks.

Stubbs is glad to be free. “I have a lot of lost years to make up for,” she said. “I’m so happy to be back with my family and spending time with them. I’m looking forward to going back to school.”

Vance said she is “very grateful to God and the Innocence Project. I feel really blessed. It has been a very long and hard 11 years for me and my family and Leigh’s family.”

Vance’s lawyer, Merrida Coxwell of Jackson, said he believes West’s testimony could affect any case in which the dentist has testified. “If I was a person in prison, I would demand a review,” Coxwell said.

Asked about his testimony, West told The Clarion-Ledger his cases have been reviewed before, and he is happy to have them reviewed again.

He doesn’t see his testimony as a reversal, he said. “If they (defense lawyers) wish to debate it in court, so be it.”

As for bite-mark analysis, he is leaving that to others, he said. “The science is not as exact as I had hoped.”

At one point, the science of identifying bite marks was cutting edge, he said. “DNA has made it fairly obsolete.”

West has estimated he’s worked on 16,000 cases, and he’s put the number of trials he’s testified at across the U.S. as an expert at 81.

According to his resume, courts have recognized him as an expert in bite marks, child abuse, wound pattern analysis, crime scene reconstruction and ultraviolet photography.

Over the decades, his testimony has proved effective. Of the 38 Mississippi criminal trials in which The Clarion-Ledger could find a record of West’s testimony, 31 ended in convictions.

Reversals have followed in several of those cases, most notably with two Noxubee County men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks.

In Brooks’ trial, West testified he found bite marks on the body of 3-year-old Courtney Smith he said were made by Brooks.

In Brewer’s trial, West testified he found bite marks on 3-year-old Christine Jackson that he said Brewer made.

Brewer went to Death Row and spent 15 years behind bars. Brooks, who received a life sentence, spent 18 years there.

In 2008, authorities said DNA proved the identity of the real killer in both cases – Justin Albert Johnson.

In February, Johnson pleaded guilty to murdering the two girls, saying, “I wasn’t in my right mind when that happened.”

Johnson received two consecutive life sentences with no hope of parole.

Even after Brooks and Brewer were set free, West stuck to his conclusions that these two men had bit the girls. He told The Clarion-Ledger that the men obviously bit the girls before they were murdered.

He reiterated that claim in the deposition. “I never accused them of killing or raping anybody – just biting them while they were alive,” West said. “If I have a bite mark on one part of the body and semen on another part of the body, to me it’s evidence that there are two people involved.”

West’s work has also been questioned in the Dec. 18, 1993, death of Haley Oliveaux of Monroe, La., who drowned.

West said a bite mark he found on the girl matched Jimmie Duncan, now on Louisiana’s death row.

In a 2009 interview, West told The Clarion-Ledger he believed Duncan made the bite marks and killed Haley.

In the autopsy video, West can be seen examining her body, noting several injuries but none on the right cheek.

When the video resumes the next day, a visible abrasion can be seen on her right cheek. West can then be seen pressing a plaster mold of the suspect’s teeth into her cheek.

In a sworn statement, defense bite-mark expert Dr. Charles Michael Bowers of Ventura, Calif., said what West did constituted “forensic fraud.”

West responded that the accusations he made up or falsified evidence “is a damn lie.”

In the case of Stubbs and Vance, West testified at trial that he found a bite mark on Williams’ thigh that was consistent with that of Stubbs.

But what prompted the new trial was West’s other testimony and evidence the prosecution didn’t turn over to the defense that could have been used to rebut it.

West reportedly enhanced a surveillance videotape from a Brookhaven hotel and testified that on the tape he could see two women pull a limp body from the toolbox in a pickup bed.

Stubbs’ father later received copies of FBI documents prosecutors had but didn’t show in which the FBI analysts reportedly concluded they couldn’t tell what objects were being unloaded.

In his deposition, West said when he testified at the Stubbs and Vance trial, he believed in the uniqueness of bite marks. “I no longer believe in that,” he said. “And if I was asked to testify in this case again, I would say I don’t believe it’s a system that’s reliable enough to be used in court.”

Whatever testimony he gave at the trial “was the truth to the best of my knowledge,” he said. “Today I don’t believe that.”

That’s a far cry from the West who declared in one case that his error rate was “something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ.”

After the exonerations of Brewer and Brooks – in which the office of Attorney General Jim Hood played a role – Hood talked of examining 20 or so cases in which West was involved.

Given West’s reversal, Stubbs and Vance are hoping Hood’s office will drop the charges against them.

Hood’s spokeswoman, Jan Schaefer, said he couldn’t comment on the case outside the court file and filings.

“The attorney general has recognized that bite mark evidence can be unreliable – and last fall he committed himself to investigating cases of innocence in which Dr. West testified,” said Valena Beety, an attorney for the Mississippi Innocence Project representing Stubbs. “Yet, a year later, his office is seeking to re-try two women wrongly convicted in large part due to the testimony of Dr. West in 2001.”

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law, which investigated the case, said Hood’s decision to reprosecute “is disappointing – both for my client and for the state’s criminal justice system overall.”

Eddie Lee Howard is on Mississippi’s death row because of West’s testimony, Carrington said.

“Mississippi is known nationally as the poster child for forensic fraud. It’s embarrassing. The attorney general’s office should be focused on repairing this damage, not perpetuating it.”