December 3, 2020

High court says Mississippi man should get new trial after discredited bite-mark testimony

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a man on death row deserves a new trial in a 1992 killing because his conviction was based partially on a dentist’s bite-mark testimony that has been discredited.

Eddie Lee Howard Jr., 67, is in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Attorneys from the Mississippi Innocence Project asked the justices to give him a new trial.

Howard has been convicted multiple times of capital murder in the stabbing death of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp of Lowndes County. In Mississippi, capital murder is defined as a killing committed along with another felony. In this case, the other felony was rape.

On Feb. 2, 1992, a neighbor saw smoke coming from Kemp’s house. Firefighters found a small blaze in the living room and then found Kemp’s body on her bedroom floor. Her legs were bloody, she was partially exposed, a bloody knife was on her bed and the telephone line had been cut, court records show.

Howard was convicted of capital murder in 1994, when he represented himself at trial. That conviction was overturned in 1997.

Howard was convicted again in 2000. During that trial, Dr. Michael West testified that bite marks on Kemp’s neck and arm were “consistent with” Howard’s teeth, and that a bite mark on her right breast was an “identical” match to Howard’s dental impressions. The dentist also testified that he had “no doubt” Howard left the mark, according to the Supreme Court ruling Thursday.

West testified during that trial that he was a member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology and that he had followed the group’s guidelines as he compared the marks on Kemp’s body to Howard’s dental impressions that were made as part of the case.

“But since Howard’s trial, the ABFO has revised those guidelines to prohibit such testimony, and this reflects a new scientific understanding that an individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite-mark comparison,” the justices wrote Thursday. “This, along with new DNA testing and the paucity of other evidence linking Howard to the murder, requires the Court to conclude that Howard is entitled to a new trial.”

West had testified about bite marks in other cases that have been overturned, including the wrongful convictions of men in the rape and killing of two 3-year-old girls in Mississippi. Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer were later cleared, based on DNA evidence. Brooks was in prison for 16 years and Brewer was in prison for 13 years.

West said in a 2012 deposition that he no longer believed in bite-mark evidence and it should not be used in court cases.