by: Radley Balko
August 9, 2011
Prosecutors in the U.S. often decry what is sometimes called the “CSI Effect.” Movies and TV crime dramas like the popular “CSI” franchise on CBS can fill jurors’ heads with unrealistic expectations about forensic science. But there’s also a flip side to the CSI Effect: Because jurors are ready to believe the fantastical feats preformed by the wondrous forensics computers they see on screen, an unscrupulous prosecutor armed with an expert willing to offer otherwise dubious forensics on the witness stand can cause a lot of damage.
Witness Michael West. In the early 1990s, West, a dentist in Hattiesburg, Miss., was one of country’s most prolific forensic odontologists, or bite mark specialists. West claimed to have perfected a new method of identifying bite marks on human skin, saying he could then match them to the teeth of a criminal suspect. Conveniently, West often testified that only he could perform this new analysis, which he called the “West Phenomenon.”
Over the years, West broadened his areas of claimed expertise, testifying in at least 10 states as a wound pattern expert, a trace metals expert, a gun shot residue expert, a gunshot reconstruction expert, a crime scene investigator, a blood spatter expert, a “tool mark” expert, a fingernail scratch expert and an expert in “liquid splash patterns.” He also got himself elected coroner of Forrest County, Miss. Though West was discredited in a number of national media reports beginning in the mid-1990s, he continued to testify in Mississippi courtrooms until just a few years ago.
Mississippi prosecutors no longer use West as a witness, but state Attorney General Jim Hood continues to defend convictions won because of his testimony. And Mississippi’s appeals courts continue to uphold them. There are still dozens of people still in prison thanks either to West’s testimony or his forensics reports, and Mississippi officials don’t seem particularly concerned about them. One of those people is Leigh Stubbs, now 10 years into a 44-year prison sentence.
Stubbs may not be the most sympathetic of West’s victims. She’s a former drug addict, who on the night of her alleged crimes wasn’t in the best of company. But witness accounts say Stubbs remained sober that night (she passed a drug test), and the evidence suggests she was the group’s caretaker.
Stubbs’ story begins in March 2000, just after she successfully completed treatment at a rehab center in Columbus, Miss. Stubbs checked out with Tammy Vance, a friend she met in rehab, and Kim Williams, the woman Vance and Stubbs would later be accused of assaulting.
After checking out, the three women drove to the home of Dickie Ervin, whom Williams had been dating. Vance and Stubbs then left Ervin’s house. They were joined later by Williams, who had stolen some of Ervin’s Oxycontin. Vance and Williams began drinking and taking the Oxycontin, while Stubbs drove and remained sober. The three eventually ended up at a Comfort Inn in Brookhaven, Miss. By that time, Vance and Williams had passed out. Stubbs checked the three of them in to the hotel. According to the clerk’s testimony, Stubbs didn’t appear drunk or high, only tired.
By Stubbs’ account, she then helped the other two women into the room, and the three went to sleep. The next day, Stubbs and Vance went to get some food, leaving Williams in the room, still sleeping. Later the same afternoon, Stubbs and Vance noticed that Williams still hadn’t woken up, and was having trouble breathing. They called an ambulance, and Williams was admitted and treated for a drug overdose. She fell into a coma. At the hospital, doctors found a number of injuries on Williams, including swollen breasts, a swollen and bruised vagina, and marks across her buttocks. The attending physician believed the injuries appeared to be two to four days old. A rape kit was inconclusive. Another doctor later also found an injury to Williams’ head. A few days later, the office of then-District Attorney Dunn Lampton called in Michael West to examine Williams’ injuries. (Williams, who has since recovered, says she doesn’t remember who attacked her.)
Lampton chose to bring in Michael West as a witness even though West’s credibility problems were already well-known. West had previously claimed to be able to trace the bite marks in the bread of a half-eaten bologna sandwich to the prosecution’s chief suspect; he had compared his own genius to the musical genius of Itzhak Perlman; and he once testified in court that his own error rate was merely “something less than my savior, Jesus Christ.” West had been exposed in articles in both the American Bar Association Law Journal and the National Law Review, and he was suspended and later resigned from the American Board of Forensic Odontologists. But Lampton ignored West’s history and called in his expertise in yet another criminal case.
In a routine he had by then repeated dozens of times with law enforcement officials across Mississippi and Louisiana, West claimed to find human bite marks on Williams that other doctors had overlooked. He then ordered dental impressions taken from Stubbs, Vance and two other suspects. But by the time the plaster impressions arrived, Williams’ alleged wounds had faded. So West performed his analysis based on photographs he had taken of his findings days earlier. He would later testify that it was a “probability” that a bite mark he claimed to have found on William’s thigh was made by Stubbs. (In a rare display of humility, West did concede that he wasn’t “100 percent” certain of the match — only that it was likely.)
MICHAEL WEST, ‘VIDEO ENHANCEMENT EXPERT’
From there, the case against Leigh Stubbs only grew more bizarre. On the night of the alleged attack, the Comfort Inn had a security camera camera trained on its parking lot. Lampton sent the grainy VHS tape, which was taken after nightfall, to the FBI for analysis. The agency’s report found nothing incriminating in the footage. It repeatedly points out that the quality of the recording is insufficient to tell for certain how many people are depicted in the video, much less determine their identities or what sort of clothing they’re wearing. The report also makes no mention of anyone moving a “body.”
Though he was obligated by law to do so, Lampton never turned that FBI report over to Stubbs’ defense attorney. But he sent the video to Michael West, who, now donning his “video enhancement expert” cap, claimed he was able to enhance the video and capture still photos from those enhancements incriminating Stubbs and Vance for Williams’ injuries.
The ability to “enhance” security camera footage beyond its resolution is a Hollywood-perpetuated myth so common that mocking it has become a running pop culture meme. Yet West testified in court that he could do exactly that. West and Lampton both knew that the FBI itself was unable to glean anything useful from the video, according to this correspondence, in which West references the FBI’s examination of the tape. They kept that correspondence from the defense and the jury.
West did refer to the FBI in his testimony about the tape when explaining to the jury that they were about to see some of the video “in its original form and then with it blown up and with some computer enhancement.” He elaborated on that enhancement, saying: “Ten years ago, I would have to send photographs off to the FBI … [and it would] cost us $20,000 to get them back and enhanced. Now, you can sit at home, with your own computer, with $1000 software and do enhancements that used to only NASA could do. … And that’s what we did in this case.”
West then testified that using his enhancement software, he was able to determine that the figures entering and leaving the frame in the video were wearing different clothing (one wearing shorts, the other wearing blue jeans) and were two different women, thus incriminating both Stubbs and Vance. Where the FBI could only determine that someone had removed an object — possibly a bag or suitcase — from the toolbox in the truck bed, West claimed repeatedly that he could make out hair, legs, and blue jeans, leading him to conclude that the object was clearly a body. “She takes a body out of this toolbox,” West conclusively told the jury. “That’s what I see.”
West also claimed he could actually read the body language of one figure in the footage, that she appeared “anxious,” and was exhibiting the sort of adrenaline-fueled “fight or flight” response one shows after committing a crime.
West also claimed to have found marks on Williams’ head and thigh that he said matched the shape of the latches on the tool box. He added, “those two latches are 37 inches apart. And if you look at Kimberly [Williams], from the head injuries to the thigh injury is 37 inches.” West elided the fact that the distance between a person’s head and thigh varies depending on the positioning of that person’s body. Even if Williams had been put into the tool box, there’s simply no way West could have known exactly how her body was positioned, much less have then replicated that positioning, to the inch, while she lay on a hospital bed.
West donned the cap of a sociologist for his final act on the witness stand. After hinting that Stubbs may have been a lesbian, Lampton asked West if one might be especially likely to find bite marks in an assault perpetrated by a homosexual. West replied that “it wouldn’t be unusual.” The prosecutor pushed on, asking West if bite marks in such cases “would almost be expected.” West replied, “Almost.”
In 2001, Stubbs was convicted of assault, and also of stealing Oxycontin and methadone. The only evidence against Stubbs for the drug thefts was that she was with Williams and Vance when the drugs were stolen. Stubbs, who had no prior criminal record, was sentenced to 44 years in prison.
Lampton went on to become a U.S. Attorney under President George W. Bush. Two of his notable acts in that position were a pair of corruption indictments he brought against sitting Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, who fought both indictments while continuing to serve on the court. Both trials resulted in acquittals.
A LACK OF SHAME
The Mississippi Innocence Project is representing Stubbs in her post-conviction petition. “The use of Michael West as an expert at any point in time was inexcusable,” the organization’s director, Tucker Carrington, says. “There was never any basis for his work to be considered valid as a forensic science. But using him in this case in 2001, after his work had been discredited, and after the FBI’s experts had reported that they could not see anything in that videotape, that’s really a new low.”
Since Stubbs’ conviction in 2001, more evidence has come to light about Michael West and his corruption of the forensic system. In 2007, two men convicted of murder based on West’s testimony — Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks — were exonerated by DNA testing and freed. In both cases, West and his longtime collaborator, the controversial Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne, found bite marks on the victims no other doctor had seen, obtained dental impressions of the prosecution’s main suspect, then claimed to be able to match the bite marks to the suspect. A DNA check against the state database pointed to one man, Albert Johnson, for both crimes. Johnson would later confess. Combined, Brooks and Brewer had already served more than 30 years in prison.
In 2009, I broke the story about an astonishing video recording of West’s examination of a young Louisiana girl during a 1993 murder investigation. In the video, West takes a dental mold of the prosecution’s chief suspect and mashes it into the dead child’s skin. He does this dozens of times over the course of the video. Forensic specialists said that at minimum the video depicts gross medical malpractice, and that it likely shows criminal evidence tampering. Jimmie Duncan, the man convicted in part because of the bite mark evidence West “generated” in the video, is still on death row in Louisiana. (West also mashed Stubbs’ dental mold into Williams’ skin, but the trial judge accepted it as a legitimate method of analysis.)
Also in 2009, another video featuring West surfaced, this time the product of a sting operation orchestrated by a defense attorney. The attorney had his private investigator send West bite mark photos from a decade-old crime scene along with a dental mold of the private investigator’s own teeth. The investigator also sent West a check, along with a letter explaining that he was working for the family of the victim of an unsolved murder. The dental mold, the letter said, was from the man the family believed committed the crime. West not only said he could match the investigator’s own teeth to the crime scene photos, he sent back a video in which he meticulously went through his methodology.
Mississippi’s courts — many of which are presided over by judges and justices who were formerly prosecutors — are well aware of West’s history. Yet they demonstrate a notable lack of outrage or sense of urgency about convictions obtained based on his testimony. As recently as 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed the the post-conviction petition of death row inmate Eddie Lee Howard, who was also convicted thanks mostly to bite-mark testimony from West. The court found that, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.”
The office of Attorney General Jim Hood continues to defend convictions that were won on the basis of West’s testimony, including those of Howard and Stubbs. Notably though, Hood’s office no longer spends much time arguing the actual merits of West’s testimony. Rather, the state’s briefs tend to focus on the fact that defendants like Howard and Stubbs already challenged West’s credibility at trial or in their appeals, and those challenges had already been found lacking by Mississippi’s appeals courts. Therefore, they say, defendants are procedurally barred from challenging West again.
Whether or not that argument has legal merit, Hood is not obligated to defend bad convictions. Still, he seems content to hide behind procedural rules to preserve prison terms — and even death sentences — won on West’s testimony.
“Michael West was presenting bogus evidence,” Carrington says. “Prosecutors ought to be racing to identify and re-investigate cases where West was involved, not waiting for defense attorneys to discover them — much less defend his testimony or work in those cases.”
Dunn Lampton and the office of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood did not respond to my requests for comment. I last spoke to Michael West three years ago, when I called his office to request comment for an article I was writing at the time. He said at that time that he had no comment, then added, “And don’t ever call me again.”
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