Inmate challenge to death sentence goes back to trial court

AP News
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Posted: Aug 08, 2015 12:37 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A state death row inmate is going back to a north Mississippi courtroom to again fight for a new trial.

The Mississippi Supreme Court has ordered a Lowndes County judge to determine if the results of post-conviction DNA testing raise enough questions to justify a new trial for Eddie Lee Howard Jr. Howard, now 61, who was convicted and sentenced to death in the slaying of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp of Columbus. Evidence against him included bite marks on her body.

The Supreme Court, in the order signed Thursday by Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., makes no specific mention of Howard's challenge to the bite mark evidence that the inmate argues is now widely discredited in legal circles.

Waller's order directs the trial court to hold a hearing to determine if Howard's arguments of newly discovered evidence including the results of DNA testing could "probably produce a different result or induce a different verdict if a new trial is granted."

The court's order does not disclose what the DNA testing revealed. Howard's attorneys argue in briefs that DNA results do not connect Howard to the crime.

Howard was convicted of raping and fatally stabbing Kemp in 1992. He was sentenced to death.

Authorities said Kemp's body, with two stab wounds to the chest, was found by Columbus firefighters when they answered a call to her house in 1992. A bloody butcher knife was found near the body.

Kemp's ankles were bound with nylon stockings and authorities found evidence that she had been raped, including a bite mark on her body, according to the court record.

Howard was tried twice in the slaying. Evidence included bite marks on her body. Forensic dentist Dr. Michael West testified they matched impressions of Howard's teeth.

The Supreme Court threw out his 1994 conviction, ruling the prosecutor's reliance on bite marks was unsound. The court upheld Howard's second conviction and death sentence in 2000.

The bite mark evidence was at the center of oral arguments before the Mississippi court in July.

Howard's defense attorneys argue bite-mark evidence has been discredited in many legal circles since Howard's conviction. However, prosecutors said Howard cannot bring up the issue in a new appeal because he had already raised it once and it was rejected by the courts.

Attorney Tucker Carrington with the Mississippi Innocence Project argued in July to the court that new information since Howard's trial shows the scientific community has rejected the methodology and conclusions West reached in Howard's case.

Special Assistant Attorney General Jason L. Davis told the justices that before they toss out Howard's conviction, it would be better to conduct a hearing into how bite mark evidence is now viewed by the medical community.

In briefs filed in the court, Carrington said the DNA testing was conducted in 2013 and concluded in 2014. He said the only positive results for male DNA came from the butcher knife, which authorities said was used in the slaying, and the results excluded Howard as the source.

The attorney general's office argues Howard is drawing his own conclusions from the DNA testing — conclusions unsupported by expert testimony.

Prosecutors also said just because Howard's DNA wasn't found, it does not show that Howard did not commit the crime. They said the knife was handled at trial and numerous times since then. They said Howard could also have worn gloves, which would account for why his DNA does not show up on the knife.