Bite Me: Bogus Bite Mark Evidence Frees 2 Mississippi Women

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When asked about his success rate in matching bite marks during a trial, dentist Michael West once quipped “something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ.” (I’m really trying to refrain from using blasphemous language here in some sort of pun fashion.) Recently, we have learned that West’s success rate can be seriously drawn into question. In a recent Clarion Ledger article, West has now retreated from his position on bite mark evidence. “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.”

The deposition was taken by my partner, Merrida Coxwell, and Innocence Project member Tucker Carrington. Merrida and Tucker are representing Tammy Vance and Lee Stubbs, respectively, in their quest to throw out their convictions brought about in large part by West’s bite mark evidence. West not only connected bite marks to to Stubbs he claimed to be able to enhance security video which enabled him to conclusively show Vance and Stubbs carrying the victim. An FBI report, which was not given to the lawyers representing the women at the time of the trial, refuted West’s claims. The good news is that the convictions for both women were set aside and a new trial was ordered.

This isn’t the first time that West’s bite mark evidence has drawn attention, 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.

West claims to have worked on over 16,000 cases nationally and testified in 81 cases as an “expert”. In the 38 Mississippi cases he testified in, 31 ended in convictions. We know now by West’s own admission that even he has abandoned bite mark evidence. In a perfect world, the State of Mississippi would immediately go through each of West’s cases and evaluate whether wrongful convictions occurred. However, we all know that is not going to happen.

The next time you see a person get convicted on the basis of so-called “expert evidence” remember the cautionary tale of Michael West. To quote West “the science is not as exact as I had hoped.” Yeah, but those convictions and jail time were very exact Dr. West.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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