Neighbors of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp of Lowndes County, Miss., grew concerned on Feb. 2, 1992, when they noticed smoke coming from her residence. Once firefighters arrived, they found Kemp’s body lying dead on her bathroom floor next to a small fire in her living room.
Former de-facto State Medical Examiner Dr. Steven Hayne conducted an autopsy and concluded that Kemp “had been beaten, strangled, stabbed and raped.” However, Hayne, who later faced controversy for lack of American Board of Pathology certification, listed Kemp’s official cause of death as two stab wounds to her chest.
On Feb. 7 of that year, three days after Kemp’s burial, Hayne ordered Ms. Kemp’s body exhumed. Although his original autopsy did not indicate bite marks, the medical examiner then stated that “[t]here was some question that … there could be injuries inflicted by teeth.”
Hayne was relying on Dr. Michael West, at that time considered one of the leading experts in bite-mark identification. West examined the body, using ultraviolet light and “special glasses” to discover bite marks deemed invisible to the naked human eye, and therefore missed on the autopsy report, on three parts of the victim’s body.
Eddie Lee Howard lived two blocks from Kemp. On Feb. 8, 1992, police arrested Howard as a suspect in Kemp’s murder. District Attorney for Mississippi’s 16th District, Scott Colom, told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 13, 2021, that he was unaware of why Howard was originally listed as a suspect in Ms. Kemp’s murder 29 years before. But as investigators began to focus on Howard, they made a mold of his teeth and noted “a removable partial denture replacing his upper four front teeth.”
Dr. West testified in Howard’s trial that the bite mark on Kemp’s right breast “was indeed and without doubt inflicted by … Howard.”
‘Sole Evidence’ Against Howard Lacked Photographic Proof
Eddie Lee Howard, who is now 67, was 38 at the time of his arrest and is a father and lifelong resident of Columbus.
As a Black man deemed indigent and unable to pay for representation, Howard had to rely on court-appointed attorneys for his defense. DA Colom says now that prosecutors did not enter pictures or even diagrams of the bite marks into the evidence. “There is no documentation of (the bite marks) anywhere,” he said in the interview.
Colom said the public and the courts were “totally reliable” on Dr. West’s claims that there were bite-marks on Kemp’s body. Indeed, West’s testimony was the key evidence that led a jury to convict Howard.
In fact, the bite-mark evidence West provided was “almost the sole evidence against (Howard), and it was certainly the only physical evidence that linked him to the offense,” Professor Tucker Carrington, associate professor of law at the University of Mississippi and the director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project, said in a recent interview. Carrington and The Innocence Project later provided legal representation for Howard’s fight for exoneration.
But in 1994, Mississippi’s 16th Circuit Court Judge Lee Howard (no known relation) sentenced Eddie Lee Howard to die by lethal injection at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Howard’s execution date was set for June 27, 1994; however, due to numerous appeals and re-trials Howard was able to postpone his original date.
Experts Face Questions of Credibility
Following the Howard verdict, investigators continued to rely on West’s expertise in bite-mark identification including the 1995 case of Kennedy Brewer in Noxubee County. The murdered and raped body of Brewer’s 3-year-old daughter was found in a creek.
In the case, West claimed there were bite marks on the girl’s body belonging to her father. Once again, West’s testimony was considered key evidence that eventually led to Brewer’s conviction and sentence to death row. By the time of Brewer’s trial, West became the first person ever to be suspended from the American Board of Forensic Odontology; however, the court still allowed him to testify.
A panel of forensic experts later examined the body and determined that the “bite marks” on the child’s body were not from a human but instead from insects and crawfish that picked at the body as it was in the creek. In 2001, advanced DNA testing was done on the body and excluded Brewer from the crime. He has since been released from prison after spending more than seven years of his life on death row.
Following West’s testimony at Howard’s hearing and others, questions about his credibility, and bite-mark identification in general, began to surface. Since the early 1990s, the Innocence Project has found and exonerated at least 28 wrongful convictions based on faulty bite-mark forensics.
In Mississippi, Howard became at least the seventh person to be either wrongfully charged or convicted, and later exonerated, due to Dr. West’s evidence. After his peers accused West of ethics violations, West resigned from the International Association of Identification in 1993 and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1994. West’s bite-mark science has led to innocent people spending at least a combined 75 years in jail, the Innocence Project reports.
The Mississippi Supreme Court decided on Aug. 27, 2020, to grant Howard a new trial due largely in part to questions about Dr. West’s evidence.
“Dr. West’s credibility also has been destroyed since Howard’s trial. In the intervening years, West and his methodology have plunged to overwhelming rejection by the forensics community to the point that today his methodology is not at all supported by mainstream forensic odontologists,” Associate Justice David Ishee wrote in a concurring option for the court.
“In fact, West’s methods are wholly contradicted and disqualified by today’s ABFO (The American Board of Forensic Odontology) guidelines. Dr. West testified that it was not possible to compute his margin of error because his craft is ‘a subjective art and science’”, Ishee continued. “But we know now that Dr. West’s work is fraught with error because his history includes trial testimony that has led to the conviction of the innocent.”
Bite-mark Evidence: ‘Utter Junk’
Lowndes County’s first Black district attorney took control of Howard’s case after the Mississippi Supreme Court had granted Howard a new trial on Aug. 27, 2020, based on “erroneous reliance on bite mark analysis, combined with new DNA testing and a lack of evidence connecting Mr. Howard to the murder,” as the American Bar Association put it. The case shifted to District Attorney Colom, whose jurisdiction covers Columbus, who could decide either to retry Howard or drop his charges. He chose the latter.
Colom has committed to not using bite-mark evidence in current and future cases. “Dr. West and the bite-mark evidence that was used is not reliable and has a lot of problems,” Colom said.
Carrington goes further, calling bite-mark evidence “utter nonsense … it’s junk.” Furthermore, recent DNA evidence of Ms. Kemp’s body and clothing, fingernail scrapings and a sexual-assault kit “did not provide a match with Howard’s DNA,” according to case files and Colom.
The evidence, however, that Colom found most troubling when it came to a potential prosecution was what he called “a male-source DNA” detected on the knife blade found in Ms. Kemp’s house. “But (the DNA) didn’t match Howard, and in fact Howard was excluded as a source of the DNA,” he said.
Based on what he deemed to be unreliable bite-mark evidence and the new DNA information, once the case was on District Attorney Colom’s desk, he decided “there was no possible way we could re-try Howard for that charge because we had almost no evidence of his guilt.”
DA Colom’s decision is in line with former President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology September 2016 report, which concluded that forensic bite-mark evidence is “not scientifically valid.”
Parchman, and List of Crimes, Meant to Disenfranchise Black Voters
Theft, which became an official disenfranchising crime in Mississippi’s racist 1890 Constitution, was used to intentionally target recently freed Black men. In 2018, Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, told the Jackson Free Press, “The list of crimes that’s in our state Constitution was adopted in 1890 because it was thought that Black people were more likely than white people to commit these crimes.”
And many would end up in the Mississippi Penitentiary at Parchman, providing free labor to the State of Mississippi. In the early years of Parchman, the State of Mississippi used unpaid and forced prison labor, from a 90% Black prison population, to farm cotton and other crops in a plantation-esque setting for sometimes 15 hours at a time.
Following his electoral victory in 1903, former Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman began taking interest in Parchman and its prison population. Vardaman, also known as the “Great White Chief,” was a racist and white supremacist born in Texas who later chose Greenwood, Miss., as his home and base of operations. He advocated for the mass lynching of Blacks in order to “maintain white supremacy.” He also opposed Black suffrage and education.
In 1906, Vardaman ended Mississippi’s convict leasing system, which previously allowed the state to lease mostly Black prisoners to perform grueling manual labor at private facilities. While the leasing had been financially lucrative for the state, Vardaman sought to end the program to give the state consolidated control of the ever-increasing prison population and to directly reap the value of their labor.
Vardaman saw Parchman as a solution to control what he considered to be “criminal negroes” who he claimed were migrating to the state’s cities, “seeking a way to live without honest toil, and menacing the safety of the white man’s home.” During his tenure as governor, Vardaman called for the closing of Black public schools because he “believed that they should remain in economic servitude and that education was unnecessary for the kind of work they would do.”
True to Vardaman’s plan, this forced labor prison camp was in turn incredibly profitable for Mississippi coffers, making the State the modern-day equivalent of $5 million by its second full year of operation.
‘The Worst Thing You Could Imagine Was There’
While Parchman prison still stands on its original grounds, the living conditions that Howard lived through for 26 years are still just as shocking as they were in the early 1900s. Notorious for its health and safety violations, one prison expert called the Mississippi State Penitentiary “the worst jail or prison I’ve seen in the United States in 20 years.”
In the last year, inmates have leaked cellphone videos and pictures that show black mold, backed up sewer lines, roof leaks and live electrical wires floating in standing water. In a Jan. 31, 2020, pre-COVID tour of the prison with a congressional delegation, Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus, described “what we saw was really, really, really horrific. … The worst thing you could imagine was there.”
“When I led a delegation to the Mississippi Penitentiary at Parchman early last year, the suffocating stench of feces hung in the air. Blood was still visible on the floor from the recent rash of violence. Water was ankle-deep with live wires floating like electric eels, Karriem wrote in a recent MFP Voices essay.
Since Howard’s incarceration in 1992, Parchman has violated the Safe Water Drinking Act over a hundred times for excess amounts of dangerous bacteria such as coliform and for routinely having radiologicals in the water such as Uranium and Radium-226. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly spread throughout Mississippi’s prisons and jails with 87 Parchman inmates testing positive for the virus as of late December 2020. Since 2014, Mississippi has cut funding to the Mississippi Department of Corrections by $215 million.
No Counseling Through 26 Years on Death Row
As an inmate on death row for over a quarter-century, Howard was given no mental-health counseling or vocational and educational training, attorney Carrington said. “Many of these folks (on death row) are decompensating during the years that they’re appealing their cases up until their execution,” he added.
Per Mississippi state law, inmates on death row are not allowed contact visits or group recreation, and they spend a minimum of 22 hours everyday in solitary cells. Physical exercise is strictly regimented, and when it is allowed, prisoners exercise individually. For 26 years, the only tangible and long-term social interaction Howard had was with his two neighboring inmates.
As of October 2020, more than half of Mississippi’s death row inmates were Black. A 2003 University of California Santa Cruz study determined that nearly half of inmates housed in solitary confinement “suffered from “perception disorders, hallucinations, or suicidal thoughts.” An additional study found that about one-in-three solitary confinement inmates develop “severe mental illness.”
Rep. Karriem told the Mississippi Free Press on Jan. 28 that “[for] people living in those conditions; it was just inhumane.” He noted that the conditions at Parchman were so bad that “I had to leave the group and say a little prayer. And pray for the people who were incarcerated, but I also prayed for Mississippi because I know we can do a lot better than what we’re doing now in our criminal justice system.”
Carrington said Howard, who is not yet giving interviews, has essentially been cut off from family and friends and the world for close to three decades. “You can imagine what it’s like to try and successfully integrate into the free world after you’ve been institutionalized in that way,” he said.
In addition to Howard’s isolation from the outside world and his social circles, he left prison with nothing. “No clothes, no money, no place to sleep, nothing to restart his life with,” Carrington said.
Compensation, or Trial, for Wrongful Imprisonment?
One way for Howard to begin to reacclimate to the free world is through Mississippi’s compensation statute for wrongful imprisonment. Under the law, people who have been wrongfully imprisoned can petition the state for up to $50,000 for each year they were incarcerated, up to $500,000 in total. Professor Carrington believes that Howard would qualify for this compensation.
Testimony from Dr. Michael West has sent at least seven innocent people to prison in which they have spent over a combined 75 years in prison. Recently, calls have arisen for Dr. West to face trial in order to be potentially held accountable for his incorrect testimonies. Dr. Michael West could not be reached for comment.
Carrington said witnesses like West have qualified immunity for their testimony they provided in court. Because of this, in order for the court to convict Dr. West, prosecutors would have to clearly show that he or Dr. Hayne, who died in 2020, acted with blatant malice, which in this case would mean “you would have to show that they were making (the bite-mark evidence) up, and that they knew they were making it up.”
“It’s almost impossible,” he continued. “Because you would almost have to have Dr. West say ‘yes, I made it up,” and that’s just not going to happen.”
Note: District Attorney Scott Colom, quoted above, was an early donor to the Mississippi Free Press with his father Wilbur Colom. Donations do not influence Mississippi Free Press reporting.