JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A man sentenced to death in the rape and killing of an 82-year-old woman is pursuing a new trial by renewing a legal challenge on evidence from a bite mark on the victim that was used to convict him.
Eddie Lee Howard Jr.'s defense attorneys have filed briefs with the Mississippi Supreme Court, arguing bite-mark evidence has been discredited in many legal circles since Howard's conviction. However, prosecutors say Howard cannot bring up the issue in a new appeal because he had already raised it once and it was rejected by the courts.
The Mississippi Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case on June 23.
An Associated Press analysis in 2013 found that at least two dozen defendants either convicted or charged with rape and murder using bite mark evidence have been exonerated since 2000 — many after spending more than a decade in prison.
Howard, now 61, was tried twice in Lowndes County for the 1992 rape and stabbing death of 82-year-old Georgia Kemp of Columbus. Evidence against him included bite marks on the woman's body; a dentist testified they matched impressions of Howard's teeth.
The Mississippi Supreme Court threw out his 1994 capital murder conviction and death sentence, ruling that the prosecutor's reliance on the bite marks was unsound. The court upheld the conviction and death sentence from his second trial, in 2000. Between those trials, the court ruled that bite-mark evidence can be used in Mississippi.
In Howard's new claim, the Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi Law School again attacks the bite-mark evidence and the testimony of Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist. Howard's attorney argues his client was denied a fair trial because West's testimony was false and misleading and based on "junk science."
"The State's continued defense of Eddie Lee Howard's conviction and his death sentence is nothing more than a request that this Court elevate magic above law," attorney William T. Carrington with the Innocence Project wrote in briefs.
Carrington said West's testimony was the only physical evidence presented at Howard's trial.
"Over the past decade, the field of bite mark identification has devolved from a favored forensic science admitted in courts throughout the United States to a craft of forensic charlatanism," he said.
Special Assistant Attorney General Jason L. Davis said in briefs that Howard has not found new evidence on which to base an appeal. Davis said the issue of bite mark evidence was rehashed in earlier appeals — all rejected by the courts.
"Howard never specifically points to any evidence that can be considered newly discovered ... no expert or scientific organization has offered testimony or even speculates that the bite marks on the victim's body were not inflicted by Eddie Lee Howard," Davis said.
A small, mostly ungoverned group of dentists carry out bite mark analysis and their findings are often key evidence in prosecutions, even though there is no scientific proof that teeth can be matched definitively to a bite into human skin. DNA has outstripped the usefulness of bite mark analysis in many cases: The FBI doesn't use it and the American Dental Association does not recognize it.
Supporters of the method, which involves comparing the teeth of possible suspects to bite mark patterns on victims, argue it has helped convict child murderers and other notorious criminals, including serial killer Ted Bundy. They say problems that have arisen are not about the method, but about the qualifications of those testifying, who can earn as much as $5,000 a case.