October 30, 2020

New Trial Granted to Mississippi Death Row Prisoner Eddie Lee Howard

The Mississippi State Supreme Court building where Eddie Lee Howard's death sentence was overturned on August 27, 2020.

The Mississippi State Supreme Court building where Eddie Lee Howard's death sentence was overturned on August 27, 2020.

@ User: formulanone / Wikimedia Commons / (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On August 27, 2020, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted a new trial to Eddie Lee Howard, Jr. The court found that erroneous reliance on bite mark analysis, combined with new DNA testing and a lack of evidence connecting Mr. Howard to the murder, entitled him to a new trial. The use of bite mark analysis has been criticized in recent years due to the lack of scientific support or research on the reliability of the practice.

Mr. Howard, an African-American man, has twice been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder and rape of Georgia Kemp, an elderly white woman, in 1992. He has been incarcerated on death row for nearly thirty years. Both convictions heavily relied on now discredited bite mark evidence.

Mr. Howard represented himself at his first trial in 1994, in which the State relied primarily on bite mark evidence to connect him to the crime. The original autopsy did not show any bite marks on Ms. Kemp; however, in a subsequent examination, forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West allegedly discovered bite mark evidence. No one else observed these marks, and no photographs of the alleged bite marks have ever been presented. Mr. Howard was sentenced to death, but the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the sentence due to problems with the trial court's handling of Mr. Howard’s pro se representation.

At the second trial, prosecutors again relied on Dr. West’s bite mark analysis. At this trial, Dr. West identified Mr. Howard’s dental impressions as an identical match to the bite mark. Dr. West’s conclusory testimony was, at the time, backed by guidelines produced by the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO), of which Dr. West was a member. The ABFO is a national organization that establishes standards and practices for dentists practicing forensic odontology, which primarily involves bite mark analysis. As part of its mission, the ABFO produces guidelines that govern the practice of bite mark analysis and determine at what level of certainty a certified expert can testify about bite marks.

At the time of his testimony in May 2000, Dr. West’s statement was consistent with the ABFO guidelines. However, growing numbers of wrongful convictions based, at least in part, on bite mark evidence, prompted a review of forensic techniques. A 2009 report from the National Academies of Science found that the field of forensic odontology lacked scientific evidence for supporting the assumptions made in bite mark comparisons and identifying individuals “to the exclusion of all others” based on a bite mark. The ABFO then revised their guidelines in 2013 and 2016 to prohibit testimony conclusively identifying a person based on a bite mark.

In 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted a request from Mr. Howard for post-conviction DNA testing. The testing results excluded Mr. Howard as the source of the DNA found on the murder weapon, which was the only crime-scene evidence containing male DNA. Back in the trial court, Mr. Howard then filed a motion to vacate his conviction, citing both the DNA results and the advancements in understanding of bite-mark evidence. The Lowndes County Circuit Court denied the motion, stating that Mr. Howard had not presented any new evidence that would impact the result of a trial, as the lack of evidence linking Mr. Howard to the crime had been raised in the second trial. The court also noted that criticisms of Dr. West’s method had been raised earlier in the case and did not constitute new evidence. Mr. Howard appealed the denial to the Mississippi Supreme Court.

To receive a new trial based on newly discovered evidence in Mississippi, a petitioner must show that there is a probability the new evidence would produce a different trial outcome. The bite mark evidence was critical to Mr. Howard’s second conviction, and using the revised ABFO guidelines, the Mississippi Supreme Court determined that this evidence would not be admitted in the same manner at a trial today as it was in 2000. The court found that in light of the decreased weight of the bite mark testimony, the lack of eyewitness evidence, and the newly discovered evidence of a different man's DNA on the murder weapon, a jury would probably not find Mr. Howard guilty at a new trial. The 16th District Court District Attorney’s office has not yet determined if it will dismiss the charges or pursue a new trial against Mr. Howard. 

Mr. Howard is the 34th person in the country to have a sentenced overturned due to the use of bite-mark evidence.