Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Sid Salter: Supremes Right to Reject "Bite Mark" Evidence in Death Row Case

A decade ago, I was writing about what I saw as a crisis in Mississippi’s death investigation system. Last week, the state Supreme Court took an essential step toward facing up to a system that remained broken for decades in the case of Death Row inmate Eddie Lee Howard Jr.

During my years writing about Mississippi’s Death Row inmates and the state’s flawed death investigation system, I became familiar with Howard and the 1992 murder of 82-year-old Georgia Kemp. Mrs. Kemp died of two stab wounds to the chest, and what appeared to have been a brutal beating and choking from her assailant as she struggled for her life on the floor of her trailer.

Medical Examiner Dr. Steven Hayne on autopsy ruled that Mrs. Kemp died of the stab wounds, but said he found signs of rape. Rape and the fact that a fire had been set at the murder scene produced the elements necessary for Howard to face a capital murder indictment under Mississippi law.

Three days after Mrs. Kemp’s burial, Hayne told prosecutors he recalled seeing what might have been bite marks on the victim’s body. Officials exhumed the woman’s body and transported the remains to Hattiesburg for an examination by odontologist Dr. Michael West, who would ultimately testify that there were indeed bite marks on the body and that, after investigation, the bite marks definitely belonged to Howard.

Yet Hayne’s initial autopsy report did not reference bite marks. Howard spent some 26 years on Death Row – and Mississippi’s version of that is as hard a time as hard time gets for prisoners.

Last week, the Supreme Court vacated Howard’s conviction and death sentence and granted him a new trial based on the court’s majority ruling that: “Given the inadmissibility of Dr. West’s identification of Howard as the biter, the absence of forensic or eyewitness evidence putting Howard at the scene of the crime, and the newly discovered presence of another man’s DNA on the murder weapon, we conclude that Howard met his burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that in light of his newly discovered evidence, a jury would probably not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In a statement after the court’s ruling, the Mississippi Innocence Project said that Howard was “the fourth Mississippian tried and convicted for capital murder based on the forensic work and testimony of Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West.”

In 2008, inmates Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were exonerated in the killings of two toddlers in separate cases. Both were convicted mostly on the testimony of Hayne and odontologist Dr. Michael West. Hayne had identified bite marks on the body of the children.

West claimed the bite marks were made by the two front teeth of the suspects. A panel of experts later successfully refuted the theory. Hayne’s contract with the state ended in 2008.

Mississippi is a state that talks tough on crime. But for many decades, we didn’t want to foot the bill for a qualified, board-certified state medical examiner and a team of forensic pathologists to shoulder the burden of investigating deaths in the state. The county coroner system was firmly entrenched well into this decade.

Want to be tough on crime? Then Mississippi taxpayers must pay for qualified forensic pathologists, adequate post-conviction counsel, adequate capital case defense, modern DNA evidence gathering and storage capabilities, and an overall professional death investigation system.

Failure to do so undermines otherwise righteous convictions by the state’s prosecutors and ultimately makes all of us less safe. In the final analysis, fair criminal justice is a lot safer for taxpayers and defendant alike.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at


Anonymous said...

Good article and agree with the content and need for these types of qualified people, but realize this will not be happening for quite a while.

Anonymous said...

Fair points. It has always bothered me when people talk glowingly of the death penalty. When the government kills a citizen, it is no place for celebration or political rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Hayne and West should both be on death row for the amount of mayhem they’ve caused throughout the state.

Anonymous said...

He will be found guilty a second time-

Anonymous said...

As a criminal defense attorney, this is one of best articles written on this issue. We should focus the vast majority of our resources on prosecuting and incarcerating violent offenders. However this requires money, lots of money. You can do that when you are looking up people with minor offenses for lengthy periods.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is innocence on death row & in prison in fact. This is the view of the Mississippi Innocence Project simply due to the fact they are against the death penalty. Let's retry ever case until we either bog down the justice system or they change the laws the way we like them.

Anonymous said...

Did Dr. Michael West ever get a case correct?

Anonymous said...

@9:28 another man's DNA was found on the weapon. There are no witnesses or other physical evidence that say he committed the crime. The dude was set up by a crooked system that's run by a bunch of backwards rednecks and their cousins.

Why defend that by attacking the Innocence Project. They raise funds privately to correct the stupid mistakes of you and your idiot cousins.

Anonymous said...

Doctor Haine passed away last month. May he please rest in piece.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this straight. This guy was convicted soley on alleged bite marks? Really?

Anonymous said...

Kenny Griffis was the sole dissenter on an obvious case. I hope the voters take notice. His opinion is dangerous to a free society and he should not be deciding cases.

Anonymous said...

I wonder, how many unnecessary victims were created by the dynamic duo of Hayne and West? How many lives were destroyed by violent criminals loose in society because these two opportunists manufactured a case against an obvious suspect?

Anonymous said...

yeah. let’s just make up “evidence” to convict a guy who may resemble the person who actually did the crime.

and then we ask why people protest the events in minneapolis and louisville and racine??

Anonymous said...

If I'm correct, 3 of the 4 capital murder convictions overturned come from Hayne, West, and Forrest Allgood (the notorious former DA for that part of the world). I hope each has to answer for their misdeeds when they meet their maker.

Anonymous said...

I remember wondering why West was used for anything, but the DA I worked for seemed to love him. I don’t miss prosecuting.

Anonymous said...

It is important to get it right, not only because an innocent person ends up in prison (or possibly even executed), but also because when an innocent person goes to jail, the guilty one is left to roam the streets and commit more crimes.

Anonymous said...

Good grief!

Given Mississippi's history in framing Black men for crimes they didn't commit, that so many of you still don't understand why current protesters are upset is ridiculous.

That you ignore that the KKK ran the police and the justice system in this State for decades is convenient blindness.

That you don't get how hard it is to have a conviction overturned is stunning.

But, then you don't believe in the science of DNA if proof you just don't understand science.

After all, you don't understand it when your own skin is on the line.

By the way, if a black couple had been driving the car instead of the Irbys, how do you think that case would have turned out? How about black guys that kill their girlfriends?

Justice is supposed to be blind and equal, but some of you clearly are unAmerican on that one.

Thomas Gentry said...

West's defense has always been that bitemark "evidence" should only be use to EXCLUDE a suspect..never as conclusive.
Dr.West is best known in Hattiesburg for his role as county coroner in despoiling a conspiracy by Chancery Judge Robbie Taylor and members of the Hattieburg Poice Department in looting the estate of a Picayune businessman.
The suicide of a public defender who threatened to expose the conspirators led to Judge Taylor's suicide induced by overdosing on sleeping pills.
The first to arrive at the death scene was an HPD officer. When West arrived the family wanted no autopsy conducted and attempted to prevent such.Rumors abound that Mike Moore tried to overrule West. Mike Moore was successful in moving the trial of one of the conspirators who was caught burning evidence. A Pascagoula jury acquitted him. West was defeated in the next Coroner election by a Baptist preacher.

Anonymous said...

"the KKK ran the police and the justice system in this State for decades is convenient blindness."

Very true.
Thank the Lord those days are in the past.

But in 2020 . . . the left's hypocrisy is comical.

One minute they crow about forgiving a thug's past when charged with yet another murder, but then they attack people that have been dead for over two hundred years because they may have owned slaves.

Anonymous said...

Amen Sid! Bring the justice! PLUS: the “culture” who rape, beat, bite and stab an 82 year old woman will see this and realize you aren’t like other White people and think you’re cool.

Anonymous said...

Here's a history of bite mark evidence in criminal trials.

In short, it started in a witch trial in 1692, was brought back in 1974 (in California, BTW), and was brought to new lows by Dr. West in Miss. He used yellow goggles and ultraviolet light that he claimed only he could use, so it couldn't be duplicated by anyone else.

The Innocence Project has been battling this travesty of justice for a long time. To anyone who thinks they are just leftist shills, I challenge you to read the article in the above link.

Anonymous said...

This reads like Salter is claiming he identified this "crisis" in our criminal justice system and, lo and behold, the Supreme Court has finally seen the wisdom of his insights. Hayne was discredited, and investigations into his testimony had begun, way more than a decade ago. Like most things Mississippi screws up and covers up, it was identified by people outside the state. And no one here cared (have you ever seen Salter "rock the boat" of the establishment in Mississippi?). However, Hayne screwed up when he started giving his B.S. testimony in civil, medical malpractice trials against doctors and, once his testimony started costing the important people, the political will suddenly materialized to throw him out. Salter is no social justice warrior, and the story of Dr. Hayne is not a "feel good" story of wrongs being righted. Hayne just pissed off the wrong people (who actually had the money to defend themselves).

Anonymous said...

Three cases out of how many hundreds of cases that the pathologist got right So we have to change the whole system. More money for defense lawyers more resources for them because two or three people were wrongfully convicted and the ones who you claim were responsible now have no role in any future prosecution. It's over done let's move on

StarRider said...

I was a death penalty proponent for years. I still readily concede it is worthwhile in some cases, terrorism, particularly heinous crimes where there is 100% confirmed, without any doubt, absolute certainty as to who committed the crime. The reason I became hesitant about it was a guy I knew many years ago was convicted for a murder, along with two others, one of whom confessed. I found it nearly impossible to believe, I had known the guy for several years, I thought I knew him fairly well. But, one of the others confessed, named him, so he was convicted, he must have done it. He got life, no parole. Still bothered me. Well anyway, he stayed in prison for many years, decades, and contracted cancer, eventually dying from it, and never wavering from the story that he never had anything to do with the murder. The one who had confessed had long since recanted the confession, and said he was bullied into it by the authorities. (Very possible, knowing some of the people in that department.) So after all those years the technology became available to do some DNA testing on the evidence they still had, and low and behold the DNA didn't match any of the three, but matched another guy who turned out to have been in the area, and once they zeroed in on him some other evidence linked him to the murder, and eventually everyone agreed that these guys were innocent. Didn't help my friend much, he was already dead. So, I know for a fact it can happen, and I really can't think of much that would be worse than spending most of your life in prison for something that you didn't do.

Anonymous said...

We are so focused on the injustice of potentially wrongfully convicting someone that we completely overlook JUSTICE for young children who are brutally raped and murdered.

Anonymous said...

If you want to learn more about the “esteemed” Dr West, watch the first two episodes of the Innocence Files series on Netflix. The episodes focus on two murder cases in Noxubee County and some interesting interview locations with Dr West.

Anonymous said...

4:27 pm Those days are not over.

The KKK, like it's leader David Duke, "cleaned up" and became more of an " Invisible Empire".

The White Citizens Council was and is nothing other than those who were embarrassed at Daddy parading around in sheets.They wanted to join "the respectable" folks.

Anonymous said...

11:05pm that is a ridiculous statement. While some cases may go unsolved, there's nothing like a child victim to motivate law enforcement.

What you don't want is what we have...some DA like a certain one in Winona who will make deals with convicts to give them " get out of jail free cards" to get a conviction of an innocent poor person who can't afford an attorney.

What kind of idiot wants the actual criminal to go free just to give the public a false sense of security or win an election?

Kingfish said...

See Barak Patton case.

StarRider said...

11:05, the takeaway is that maybe the death penalty isn't a great idea unless there is absolute and inarguable proof that the person is 100% guilty, and eyewitness testimony and even a confession may not always be that. As for justice for children or anybody else, I completely fail to see how putting an innocent person in prison, for any reason, gets justice for anybody.

Anonymous said...

I try cases before juries for a living. They make lots and lots of mistakes. Those mistakes cannot be corrected after an execution. That is why I oppose the death penalty.

Anonymous said...

It would scare the public if they knew how many innocent people Dr. Hayne has falsely accused.

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