Bite-Mark Evidence Loses Teeth
Posted May 1, 2008 7:02 AM CST
By Melanie Lasoff Levs
After two men on Mississippi’s death row were cleared of their convictions, the Innocence Project, which investigated their cases and represented the men, is calling for criminal charges against a controversial bite-mark expert who testified.
The New York City-based nonprofit, which helps clear prisoners through DNA testing, also will ask the Mississippi attorney general’s office for a government-sanctioned review of all cases in nine states in which the expert—Dr. Michael West, a forensic dentist in Hattiesburg, Miss.—served as witness.
In February, DNA testing and a confession by another suspect confirmed that Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both convicted in the early 1990s for separate child murders in Noxubee County, were innocent. But during trial, West had testified that multiple marks on the victims’ bodies were bite marks, which he then matched to the men. That testimony has been proven false, says Peter Neufeld, Innocence Project co-director.
“The biggest problem in these two cases is not simply that he is wrong, but that the objective data is such that it appears that he fabricated [the testimony],” Neufeld says. West’s “judgment isn’t good; his professional competence is in question; and, ultimately, if he’s fabricating evidence, he’s ... capable of lying routinely.”
The ABA Journal was among the first publications to question West’s bite-mark evidence in reporter Mark Hansen’s February 1996 cover story, “Out of the Blue.” Hansen spoke with West in a “rambling, three-hour telephone interview,” in which the discredited doc insisted that time and science would eventually prove him right.
West, who resigned from the American Society of Forensic Odontology, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
How was west’s testimony discredited? The Innocence Project canvassed the odontology community for information on what West said were multiple bite marks on the bodies, all of which were from upper teeth only. “They told us they have rarely ever seen a single upper bite only,” Neufeld explains. West also testified the injuries were inflicted before death, yet neither West nor the medical examiner testified to seeing blood in the tissue. “If there is no blood, that is a compelling indication it’s a post-mortem [injury],” Neufeld says.
Several medical examiners contacted by the project reviewed photos of the bodies, and “no one thought for a second those markings were even bite marks,” Neufeld says. “All those things taken together become compelling evidence that [West] simply made it up.”
Neufeld says his organization is determining whether to push for federal or state charges against West, including perjury and tampering with evidence. He adds that attempted murder is also a possibility. “If you deliberately fabricate evidence in a capital case where you know that the consequences of your actions are a person will be convicted and sentenced to death, even if the person is not killed, that is a crime of attempted murder,” he says. “I think [West] could be prosecuted under that theory.”
The Innocence Project has a panel of three odontologists ready to review all of West’s bite-mark testimony, and it plans to find other experts to review data and testimony in West’s other cases, Neufeld says. “There has to be a rigorous review of all the cases in which he’s testified, not just involving bite marks,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know how many a review would entail. “If you’re willing to fabricate evidence in one case, there’s no reason to expect you wouldn’t do it in another.”
"Out of the Blue," ABA Journal, Feburary 1996