After years of fighting a murder conviction based heavily on questionable evidence, a Mississippi man who spent more than a quarter of a century behind bars won the dismissal of his case last week.
The man, Eddie Lee Howard, 67, was on death row, even though his conviction was based on little more than bite marks on a murder victim, presented as evidence at trial by an expert whose testimony has since been questioned. .
Mr. Howard's conviction of capital murder was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court last year and he was released in December. Last week, a judge approved a motion from the Lowndes County District Attorney & # 39; s Office to dismiss the case.
"I agree with the Supreme Court that evidence of bite marks has come under close scrutiny," said prosecutor Scott Colom. "Other than that evidence, there was nothing else that put Mr. Howard at the scene of the murder."
Mr. Colom added that DNA on a gun at the crime scene had been shown to belong to someone other than Mr. Howard. "That could be considered offensive," he said.
In 1994 Mr. Howard was convicted of the 1992 murder of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp, who was found dead at her home in Lowndes County, Miss. An autopsy revealed that she died of two stab wounds, according to court records, and that Mrs. Kemp also had injuries consistent with rape, but no visible bite marks.
Expert testimony on bite marks came from Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist wanted by prosecutors across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. He said the bite marks on Mrs. Kemp's body, which he found with ultraviolet light, matched Mr. Howard's teeth.
But attorneys representing Mr. Howard have argued that bite marks were not a reliable form of forensic evidence.
"The reality is there was never any evidence against Eddie Lee Howard," he said Chris Fabricant, an attorney for Mr. Howard and the director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project. "It is astonishing."
Corrosive evidence has played a role in hundreds of cases, and its use in the 1979 trial of Ted Bundy brought it into the public eye.
"When it started to gain acceptance in court, no one really challenged its scientific validity," said Mary Bush, a professor at the University of Buffalo & # 39; s School of Dental Medicine who is an expert in forensic dentistry and bite. mark analysis and was an expert witness for Mr. Howard in 2016.
But in the years that followed, the method is criticized by experts who consider it ineffective.
Because human skin is elastic, bite marks can easily become deformed, said Dr. Bush. "Unless you have DNA, you really can't use a bite trail to identify someone," she added.
Even Dr. West seems to have questioned their worth. Court documents show that Dr. West said in a 2012 statement for another case that he did not think bite mark analysis should be used in court.
But when Mr. Fabricant questioned him about that statement in 2016, he did not revert to his testimony during Mr. Howard's murder trial. "I can make mistakes," he said. & # 39; Do I think I made mistakes in this case? No."
Attempts to contact Dr. West by phone on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
According to at least 26 people in the United States have been wrongly convicted because of corrosive evidence the Innocence Project.
Mr. Howard was incarcerated in Parchman, a maximum-security prison in the Mississippi Delta. Built on the site of a former plantation, the facility is known for its harsh conditions and violent outbreaks.
Mr. Howard was convicted twice of the same crime. His first conviction for manslaughter, in 1994, was overturned in 1997 by the Mississippi Supreme Court. But he was tried again in 2000 – when prosecutors Dr. Brought in West – and condemned.
Forrest Allgood was the Lowndes County district attorney at the time. He also pursued the cases of two other men – Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer – whose beliefs were based on bite mark analysis. Dr. West also testified in those cases, and those convictions were eventually overturned.
Mr Allgood did not immediately return a message asking for comment on Wednesday.
Mr. Colom became the district prosecutor in 2015. When Mr. Howard's case came to his desk, he said, it was not a difficult decision to dismiss it.
"It is a good example of why in the criminal system we should have the ability to look back and correct mistakes," said Mr Colom, who called for the establishment of a state wrongful conviction unit.
Mr. Fabricant said Mr. Howard's wrongful conviction was due not only to prosecutors' dependence on flawed forensics, but also to deeply rooted structural inequalities.
“It's a junk science story, but it's really about the American criminal justice system,” he said. "It is a racist, biased prosecution based on a story of a vulnerable elderly white person who is attacked by a black man, convicted without trial and sent to a former slave plantation to await execution."
Mr. Howard, he said, tried his best to adjust to life outside of prison, enjoying the things he previously had no access to – fresh sheets, warm baths – and worked in a restaurant kitchen.
Mr. Howard was not available for comment on Wednesday. But in a statement by Mr. Manufacturer thanked mr. Howard those who fought for his release.
& # 39; Without your hard work for me, & # 39; he said, "I would still be locked up in that awful place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, awaiting execution."