A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard’s trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard’s teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard “to a reasonable medical certainty,” but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard’s case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences said that bite-mark analysis could not reliably identify one individual, among all others, as the source of a bite. Dr. West recently agreed that bite marks were not as unique as fingerprints, but he stood by his analysis. He said he opposed the death penalty because of the risk of error: “If you kill them, you can’t undo a mistake.”

(E. Eckholm, “Mississippi Death Row Case Faults Bite-Mark Forensics,” New York Times, September 15, 2014). See Innocence and Arbitrariness.