The Mississippi Supreme Court has granted a new trial to death-row prisoner Eddie Lee Howard, Jr. (pictured), finding that the combination of scientifically invalid bite-mark evidence used to convict him and new DNA evidence entitled him to a new trial in the 1992 murder and alleged rape of an 84-year-old white woman.

In an 8-1 decision on August 27, 2020, the court held that the discredited forensic testimony, “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.”

Howard was first convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 in a trial in which he represented himself. The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned that conviction in 1997 and ordered a new trial. He was convicted and sentenced to death again in a retrial in 2000 at which forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West testified that Howard was the source of bite marks he claimed to have found on the victim’s body during a post-autopsy, post-exhumation examination of her body. Forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne conducted the autopsy in the case and claimed that the victim had been beaten, strangled, stabbed, and raped. His initial autopsy report did not mention bite marks.

Represented by lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project and the national Innocence Project, Howard presented DNA evidence during post-conviction evidentiary hearings in 2016. The DNA testing found no evidence of semen or male DNA on the victim’s clothing, bedsheets, or body and no male DNA on the locations on the victim’s body where she supposedly had been bitten. None of the blood or other items tested contained Howard’s DNA. Male DNA found on the knife used by the murderer excluded Howard as the source. Nonetheless, the trial court upheld Howard’s conviction.

The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed. The court wrote that the type of bite-mark identification testimony given by Dr. West in this case would be prohibited under recently revised American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) guidelines “reflect[ing] a new scientific understanding that an individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite-mark comparison.” Without that testimony, which the court said was central to the prosecution’s case, the remaining evidence was insufficient to sustain Howard’s conviction.

The innocence projects hailed the court’s ruling. “Mr. Howard has been in prison for almost thirty years, almost all of that time on death row, slated to be executed,” Mississippi Innocence Project director Tucker Carrington said in a joint statement issued by the innocence projects on August 28. “It’s now time to bring this case to an end — and to close another door on a disastrous era of injustice in this state.”

In his testimony, West told the jury that bite marks on the victim’s neck and arm were “consistent with” Howard’s teeth and that another bite mark on her right breast was “identical” to Howard’s dental impressions. He further testified that he had “no doubt” Howard had caused that bite mark.

Bitemark-identification claims such as those made by West were the subject of blistering criticism by the National Academies of Science in their landmark 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. The report exposed the field of forensic odontology as lacking any “evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others” and “lack[ing] valid evidence to support many of the assumptions made by forensic dentists during bite mark comparisons.” The ABFO guidelines gradually backed off permitting bitemark identifications, eventually prohibiting them in 2018.

Earlier that year, Carrington and Washington Post columnist Radley Balko exposed the broad impact of junk science testimony from Hayne and West in trials in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South in their book The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist. According to the innocence projects, Howard was the fourth person convicted of capital murder in Mississippi based upon their forensic testimony. In 2008, the Innocence Project exonerated death-row prisoner Kennedy Brewer and his co-defendant Levon Brooks, who had been sentenced to life, after DNA testing excluded them and identified the actual killer.

After a 2016 deposition left West’s testimony in shambles, the Mississippi Innocence Project sent a letter to the Mississippi Attorney General’s office asking that the charges against Howard be dropped. Instead, state prosecutors retaliated by filing a motion seeking to remove Howard’s lawyers from the case. The Mississippi Supreme Court intervened, changing the state court rule on which the attorney general’s office had based its motion.

Prosecutors successfully fought efforts to overturn Howard’s conviction in the trial court and argued on appeal that Howard’s conviction should be upheld, notwithstanding the false forensic testimony and new DNA evidence because Howard had made an incriminating statement to a police detective. The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed that Howard’s alleged statement that “the case is solved“ and admitting he “had a temper and that’s why this happened” was “peculiar and suspicious.” However, the court noted, the statement contained no details about the crime, had not been recorded, no one else had heard it, and the detective did not subsequently ask Howard to put in writing. Viewed in the context of all of the new evidence, the court said, the statement did “not amount to a confession.”

The innocence projects said the Mississippi Supreme Court’s decision made Howard the 34th person “wrongfully-accused and convicted based on the pseudo-science of bite mark matching testimony.” The 33rd was former Florida death-row prisoner, Robert DuBoise, who was freed August 27, 2020.