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Mississippi man sent to death row by faulty forensics to get another day in court

Posted: August 2, 2007 12:38 pm

Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in Mississippi of the 1991 murder of a 3-year-old girl. His conviction was based largely on the testimony of Dr. Michael West,  forensic dentist who claimed that multiple abrasions on the child's partially decomposed body matched the upper bite of Brewer. The incorrect matching of bitemarks has been a cause of at least four wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, and West’s unorthodox methods have been debunked by many experts and he has been expelled from several professional associations.

DNA testing in 2002 excluded Kennedy Brewer as the source of the semen recovered from the child. Even though the court threw out the conviction and death sentence based on the new DNA evidence, the local prosecutor announced he would re-try Mr. Brewer and use Michael West again as a bite mark expert. The  Innocence Project is co-counsel, along with Brewer's local counsel for the retrial.

In a Fox News article yesterday, Radley Balko writes about West’s questionable past and the unreliable nature of bitemark evidence.

Even in an already imprecise field, Dr. West has taken forensic odontology to bizarre, megalomaniacal depths. West claims to have invented a system he modestly calls "The West Phenomenon," in which he dons a pair of yellow goggles and, with the aid of a blue laser, says he can identify bite marks, scratches, and other marks on a corpse that no one else can see — not even other forensics experts.

Conveniently, he claims his unique method can't be photographed or reproduced, which he says makes his opinions unimpeachable by other experts.

Read the full article here. (FoxNews.com, 08/01/07)
Read more about bite mark convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, and other unreliable forensic science that has contributed to wrongful convictions.



Tags: Kennedy Brewer, Bitemark Evidence

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Study seeks to bring science to bite mark evidence

Posted: August 8, 2007 11:08 am

For years, bite mark evidence has been seen as an unreliable science. It has led to at least four wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing and processes of accreditation and peer review have been wildly inconsistent. One "expert" in the field, Dr. Michael West, claims that his method of examining bite marks — called the "West phenomenon" — can not be recreated by anyone else. Read more about West's involvement in a Mississippi death row case.

Now, a study at Marquette University in Milwaukee is aiming to reinforce bite mark evidence with scientific data and computer analysis.

Bite-mark patterns can vary wildly in clarity, and like a bruise, they can change over time. The quality of a bite mark also depends on the substance a person has bitten, as bite marks on gum or Styrofoam cups can be more defined than bite marks on skin. The force of the bite, the angle of the bite and the area bitten can all affect the appearance of a bite mark.
Forensic dentists apply their expertise to formulate an opinion on whether the accused could have made the particular bite mark patterns.

But the subjective nature of bite-mark analysis and interpretation has been the focus of harsh criticism, and forensic dentistry has been called a "junk science."

"False convictions leave bite marks with a black eye," said Donald Simley, a certified forensic dentist based in Madison. The study "should help the whole science of bite-mark evidence."

Read the full story. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 08/05/07)
Read more about how bite mark evidence has contributed to wrongful convictions.



Tags: Bitemark Evidence

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Allegations continue to grow against Mississippi pathologist

Posted: February 25, 2008 3:49 pm

In the wake of the Feb. 15 hearings that cleared two Innocence Project clients after a combined three decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit, more allegations of misconduct have been raised against medical examiner Steven Hayne and forensic dentist Michael West. An attorney for a New York woman charged with manslaughter in the death of her daughter has asked for a state review of Hayne’s finding that the victim was suffocated. But since Mississippi has lacked a state medical examiner since the mid-1990s, there is not an official avenue to review Hayne’s findings. The Innocence Project sent a letter Feb. 14 to the commissioner of the Mississippi Dept. of Public Safety, asking him to appoint a State Medical Examiner immediately.

Read today’s article here. (Jackson Clarion-Ledger, 02/25/08)

And Reason Magazine Senior Editor Radley Balko has continued to report the results of his extensive investigations into Hayne’s conduct. Balko’s post Thursday on the Reason Magazine blog examined a Louisiana murder case in which Hayne and West testified regarding bite marks and sexual assault, leading Jimmie Christian Duncan to be sentenced to death. Duncan’s lawyers at the Louisiana Capital Post-Conviction Project have said there is evidence pointing to Duncan’s innocence and more misconduct by Hayne and West.

Read more here. (Reason, 02/21/2008)

Read Balko's post today on the "The Bite-Marks Men: Mississippi's criminal forensics disaster"

Watch television news coverage of Hayne’s controversial autopsies. (WLBT, Jackson, MS)





Tags: Bitemark Evidence

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Researchers work on bite mark database

Posted: May 14, 2008 12:00 pm

A forensic dentist who helped identify victims of the cannibalistic Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and whose work has been criticized by other forensic experts is helping researchers at Marquette University build a computer program to measure and catalog bite mark characteristics and their frequency. While bite marks are sometimes used in court, the discipline has been widely discredited and is not a validated science.

Dr. L. Thomas Johnson is collecting dental impressions from around the country to build a massive database. The software would then attempt to calculate how rarely a particular dental characteristic shows up in the population.

[Dr. Johnson] acknowledged that his software will probably never turn bite-mark analysis into a surefire identifier like DNA and that he would need tens of thousands of samples before his work would stand up in court.
Nevertheless, Dr. Johnson maintains the database will lend scientific credibility to bite-mark testimony in criminal trials based on the belief that every person’s tooth impression is unique. But human skin can change and distort bite impressions and other experts, including Dr. Mike Bowers, a deputy medical examiner in Ventura County, Calif., and a member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, consider it sham science.
"… It's not science," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted inmates.
Since 2000, at least seven people in five states who were convicted largely on bite-mark identification have been exonerated, according to the Innocence Project.
In Arizona, Ray Krone was found guilty in 1992 of killing a Phoenix bartender based largely on expert testimony that his teeth matched bites on the victim. He was sentenced to death, won a new trial on procedural grounds, was convicted again and got life. But DNA testing in 2002 proved he wasn't the killer. Krone was freed and won a spot on the ABC reality show "Extreme Makeover" to remake his teeth.
In Mississippi, forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West has come under fire after he testified in two child rape-murders in the 1990s that bite marks positively identified each killer. Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death in one case, and Levon Brooks got life in prison in the other.
DNA tests later connected a third man to one of the rapes, and investigators say he confessed to both murders. In Brewer's case, a panel of experts concluded that the bites on the victim probably came from insects. Brewer and Brooks were exonerated earlier this year.
Read the full article. (Associated Press, 5/14/08)
While bite mark analysis may be the most notorious of the dubious techniques that are cloaked in science when introduced in court, there are several scientific disciplines that are not validated and have contributed to wrongful convictions. Read more about unreliable and limited scientific techniques.





Tags: Bitemark Evidence

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Wisconsin case calls bite mark evidence into question again

Posted: July 10, 2008 2:20 pm

Faulty bite mark evidence has played a part in at least five wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA testing. Robert Stinson in Wisconsin could become the sixth. New DNA testing indicates that Stinson is in prison for a murder he didn’t commit and his case is again calling the field of forensic dentistry into question.

Dr. L Thomas Johnson, a Wisconsin bite mark analyst, testified at Stinson’s trial for a 1984 murder that bite marks on the victim’s body matched Stinson’s teeth. Now, DNA testing on saliva from the victim’s shirt have shown that another man left the bite marks. The Wisconsin Innocence Project, which represents Stinson, has filed for his release based on the new evidence.

While Johnson stands behind his work in the Stinson case, other forensic dentists have found not only that Johnson’s analysis was wrong, but also that he went too far in saying that there was “no doubt” the bite marks came from Stinson.

The case also was examined by forensic experts from Texas, California and Illinois. In their report, the experts said that while some modern methods were not available in 1984, "it should be emphasized that Drs. Johnson and Rawson should have excluded Robert Lee Stinson even based on methods and standards available at the time ... because there is little or no correlation of Robert Lee Stinson's dentition to the bite marks."

The report also criticized Johnson's testimony that there was no doubt Stinson's teeth left the marks. "That statement has no evidence-based, scientific, or statistical basis and drastically overstates the level of certainty attainable using bite mark analysis," the report said.
Johnson is also leading a project to build a computer database of bite marks, attempting to bring scientific rigor to a discipline that has been criticized for lacking it. He says his research shows that bite marks have six distinct identifying points that distinguish them. But other forensic dentists are skeptical of his work.
"This is the epitome of junk science cloaked as academic research," said Dr. Michael Bowers, a California odontologist and a frequent critic of bite-mark comparisons. "I don't think his claims are supported. The study just doesn't pass muster."

Read the full story here. (Chicago Tribune, 07/10/08)

The Innocence Project has called for scientific oversight in all forensic fields, and has criticized bite mark analysis for years because there are no national standards or acceptable certification procedures. Earlier this year, two Innocence Project clients originally convicted based on bite mark comparison – Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks – were exonerated when DNA testing led investigators to the real perpetrator of the murders for which the two men had been convicted.

Read more about wrongful convictions overturned by bite mark evidence here
.





Tags: Wisconsin, Bitemark Evidence

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Wisconsin Man Freed After 23 Years

Posted: January 30, 2009 2:26 pm

Robert Lee Stinson walked out of a Wisconsin prison today after serving 23 years behind bars for a murder DNA shows he didn’t commit. Lawyers at the Wisconsin Innocence Project joined with the Milwaukee District Attorney’s office in asking a judge to throw out Stinson’s 1985 conviction today, based on new DNA evidence of his innocence and a new analysis showing that bite mark evidence used to convict Stinson was wrong.

Just after 1 p.m., Stinson walked out of  New Lisbon Correctional Institution a free man for the first time in more than two decades. While his conviction his vacated, Stinson is not completely exonerated. Prosecutors said they will review whether to retry him.

"We are thrilled that the truth has finally come out," says Byron Lichstein, the lead attorney on the case for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Law School. "Lee has been an inspiration to work with, and the evidence supporting his longstanding claim of innocence has always driven our devotion to the case. He has waited a long time for this day."

Stinson was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in 1985 based almost exclusively on evidence purporting to match bite marks found in the victim's skin to his teeth. Since the time of Stinson's trial, new evidence has come to light that strongly supports his claim of innocence. First, four nationally recognized forensic odontologists -- David Senn, Gregory Golden, Denise Murmann, and Norman Sperber, who all volunteered their time -- evaluated the dental evidence and conclusively excluded Stinson as the source of any of the bite marks found on the victim. Furthermore, DNA evidence corroborated these conclusions — male DNA found on the victim's sweater also excluded Stinson.

Read the full story here. (Wisconsin Innocence Project, 01/30/09)




Tags: Bitemark Evidence

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Another Bite Mark Conviction Overturned

Posted: February 3, 2009 1:30 pm

Last week, we reported here on the release of Robert Lee Stinson from a Wisconsin prison after serving 23 years in prison for a murder DNA shows he didn’t commit. Stinson was convicted in part based on unreliable testimony claiming to match bite marks on the victim’s body to Stinson’s teeth. 

Radley Balko pointed out yesterday on Reason magazine’s Hit & Run blog that this case is another blow to the questionable science of bite mark analysis and particularly the work of forensic dentist L. Thomas Johnson, who testified at Stinson’s trial that bite marks on the victim’s body matched Stinson’s teeth. Johnson said he recently retested his conclusions in the case and would not change his findings. A panel of four experts gathered by the Wisconsin Innocence Project disagreed with him, saying the bite marks could not have come from Stinson.

Read Balko's post here.

Read more on Stinson’s case from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
.

Read about wrongful convictions involving bite mark evidence here
.



Tags: Bitemark Evidence

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