First Posted: 9/1/11 07:43 AM ET by Radley Balko on the Huffington Post
On Aug. 9, The Huffington Post reported on the case of Leigh Stubbs, a Mississippi woman serving a 44-year sentence for assault and drug charges. Stubbs was convicted in large part due to the testimony of Michael West, a disgraced bite mark specialist. Though West has been largely discredited, prosecutors and state officials in Mississippi (and to a lesser extent in Louisiana) continue to defend convictions won based on his testimony.
In Stubbs’ case, West presented two key pieces of evidence. The first involved the bite mark wizardry that made him famous, and then infamous: West claimed to have found bite marks on alleged victim Kim Williams that medical personnel hadn’t seen. He then used a dental mold of Stubbs’ teeth to perform an analysis on the marks, and would later testify that it was a “probability” that Stubbs had bitten Williams.
On Wednesday, forensic specialists Mike Bowers and David Averill posted a video recording of West’s examination of Williams on their site, Bitemarks.org. In his initial examination, West claims to have “missed” the evidence of a bite mark. He testified he found it in a a subsequent examination performed days later. That examination is depicted in the video below. Note that at the 50-second mark, a bite mark appears in Williams’ skin, seemingly out of nowhere.
WATCH the examination:
On their blog, Averill and Bowers explain how that mark appeared:
In his second video taken 5 days later on March 15th the area that West says “that the bitemark is no longer visible due to the nurses taking such good care of the victim and using lotion on her skin.” West then proceeds to tamper with the evidence by actually imbedding a stone cast of Leigh Stubbs teeth into the comatose victims hip resulting in a fabricated bitemark on the skin of the victim.
In a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, Bowers said the video above may depict a number of crimes. “The tampering with the evidence on the skin is likely a crime. But to create those marks on a woman who was comatose, and who hadn’t given consent, is also an assault,” Bowers said.
West, who is a dentist and not a medical doctor, also performed a vaginal exam on Williams without her consent, though he did presumably have approval from law enforcement officials.
This isn’t the first video evidence that may show West creating bite marks on an alleged victim. In 2009, this reporter examined a Louisiana case from 1993 in which a video recording shows West repeatedly jamming a suspect’s dental mold into the corpse of a young girl. In that video, bite marks also mysteriously appear on the girl’s cheek that aren’t present earlier in the video. (While bruises can appear on a body after death, bite marks are abrasions, and generally cannot.) In that case, Jimmie Duncan was convicted of killing young Haley Oliveaux, and was sentenced to death. West’s exam was the only physical evidence suggesting Duncan had murdered Oliveaux.
WARNING: Some readers may find the video below disturbing.
West doesn’t deny any of this. In his court testimony in the Stubbs case, and in a 2009 statementto the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in response to the Duncan case, West claimed that this is simply how he identifies and matches bite marks.
“He says he’s the only one who can see these marks,” Bowers said. “And that when he pushes the cast into the skin, he says he’s just enhancing marks that are already there.” Of course, once West has altered the marks in the skin with a cast of the suspect’s teeth, he has not only made the marks conform to the cast, he has also altered them so that no other expert can then second guess him as to whether they were bite marks in the first place.
Bowers and other forensic specialists say West’s “technique” is at minimum malpractice, and that it’s likely criminal evidence tampering. Yet those methods were accepted as evidence in criminal courts for more than a decade, and have still yet to be discredited by a court in Mississippi or Louisiana.
The other damning testimony West gave in the Stubbs case was his analysis of a grainy security camera video taken of a motel parking lot. Prosecutors sent the video to the FBI, which sent back a report stating there was very little the agency could discern from the video. But district attorney Dunn Lampton (who passed away earlier this month) also sent the video to West, who claimed he was able to “enhance” the video using consumer software. Averill and Bowers have also posted that video on their blog:
From this video, West testified that he could see two separate figures entering and leaving the frame, that they were wearing different clothing (one shorts, the other blue jeans). While the FBI could only determine that someone had removed perhaps a bag or suitcase from a toolbox in the truck bed, West claimed that through enhancement, he could make out hair, legs and blue jeans, leading him to conclude that the object being removed was clearly a body. West also claimed he could read the body language of one figure in the footage. He testified that she appeared “anxious,” and was exhibiting the sort of adrenaline-fueled “fight or flight” response one shows after committing a crime.
Michael West’s bite mark testimony was also the main reason Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brookswere convicted in the rape and murder of two young girls in the early 1990s. Both men were exonerated by DNA testing in 2008 after serving more than a decade in prison. A third man, Albert Johnson, later confessed to both crimes.
Though West no longer testifies in court, law enforcement officials in at least two states have so far continued to defend his testimony. As HuffPost reported on Monday, Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood defended the Leigh Stubbs’ conviction to a Hattiesburgh, Miss., television station just last week. Hood’s office has also fought attempts to throw out West’s testimony in the conviction of Eddie Lee Howard, who was sentenced to death in 1994 for the rape and murder of an elderly woman. As in the Jimmie Duncan case, West’s testimony was the only physical evidence from the suspect found on the victim. Both Howard and Duncan are still on death row.