Dentist now doubts science of bite-analysis

Written by  Jerry Mitchell  Clarion-Ledger Staff Writer
Leigh Stubbs and Tami Vance were jubilant on June 28 after the state Supreme Court threw out their convictions. Dr. Michael West, an expert witness on bite-mark analysis, testified in their trial. Now, West says he no longer believes in bite-mark analysis.

Leigh Stubbs and Tami Vance were jubilant on June 28 after the state Supreme Court threw out their convictions. Dr. Michael West, an expert witness on bite-mark analysis, testified in their trial. Now, West says he no longer believes in bite-mark analysis. / The Clarion-Ledger

Hattiesburg man testified as expert in about 80 trials

Since the 1980s, Hattiesburg dentist Michael West has raised his right hand and sworn dozens of time that bite marks on victims matched suspects.

He compared these bite marks to fingerprints, describing their unique characteristics to jurors. Most suspects he testified against went off to prison.

Now West rejects the very science he relied on to help put so many behind bars.

“I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis,” he said in a 2011 deposition obtained by The Clarion-Ledger. “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”

Two of those convicted in a 2001 aggravated assault case in which West testified, Leigh Stubbs and Tami Vance, are now receiving a new trial. They are both out on bond and will be arraigned today in Brookhaven.

Stubbs and Vance are charged with conspiring to steal drugs and cash and assaulting a traveling companion, Janet Kimberly Williams, who reported wounds to her head, breasts, vagina and buttocks.

Stubbs is glad to be free. “I have a lot of lost years to make up for,” she said. “I’m so happy to be back with my family and spending time with them. I’m looking forward to going back to school.”

Vance said she is “very grateful to God and the Innocence Project. I feel really blessed. It has been a very long and hard 11 years for me and my family and Leigh’s family.”

Vance’s lawyer, Merrida Coxwell of Jackson, said he believes West’s testimony could affect any case in which the dentist has testified. “If I was a person in prison, I would demand a review,” Coxwell said.

Asked about his testimony, West told The Clarion-Ledger his cases have been reviewed before, and he is happy to have them reviewed again.

He doesn’t see his testimony as a reversal, he said. “If they (defense lawyers) wish to debate it in court, so be it.”

As for bite-mark analysis, he is leaving that to others, he said. “The science is not as exact as I had hoped.”

At one point, the science of identifying bite marks was cutting edge, he said. “DNA has made it fairly obsolete.”

West has estimated he’s worked on 16,000 cases, and he’s put the number of trials he’s testified at across the U.S. as an expert at 81.

According to his resume, courts have recognized him as an expert in bite marks, child abuse, wound pattern analysis, crime scene reconstruction and ultraviolet photography.

Over the decades, his testimony has proved effective. Of the 38 Mississippi criminal trials in which The Clarion-Ledger could find a record of West’s testimony, 31 ended in convictions.

Reversals have followed in several of those cases, most notably with two Noxubee County men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks.

In Brooks’ trial, West testified he found bite marks on the body of 3-year-old Courtney Smith he said were made by Brooks.

In Brewer’s trial, West testified he found bite marks on 3-year-old Christine Jackson that he said Brewer made.

Brewer went to Death Row and spent 15 years behind bars. Brooks, who received a life sentence, spent 18 years there.

In 2008, authorities said DNA proved the identity of – Justin Albert Johnson.

In February, Johnson pleaded guilty to murdering the two girls, saying, “I wasn’t in my right mind when that happened.”

Johnson received two consecutive life sentences with no hope of parole.

Even after Brooks and Brewer were set free, West stuck to his conclusions that these two men had bit the girls. He told The Clarion-Ledger that the men obviously bit the girls before they were murdered.

He reiterated that claim in the deposition. “I never accused them of killing or raping anybody – just biting them while they were alive,” West said. “If I have a bite mark on one part of the body and semen on another part of the body, to me it’s evidence that there are two people involved.”

West’s work has also been questioned in the Dec. 18, 1993, death of Haley Oliveaux of Monroe, La., who drowned.

West said a bite mark he found on the girl matched Jimmie Duncan, now on Louisiana’s death row.

In a 2009 interview, West told The Clarion-Ledger he believed Duncan made the bite marks and killed Haley.

In the autopsy video, West can be seen examining her body, noting several injuries but none on the right cheek.

When the video resumes the next day, a visible abrasion can be seen on her right cheek. West can then be seen pressing a plaster mold of the suspect’s teeth into her cheek.

In a sworn statement, defense bite-mark expert Dr. Charles Michael Bowers of Ventura, Calif., said what West did constituted “forensic fraud.”

West responded that the accusations he made up or falsified evidence “is a damn lie.”

In the case of Stubbs and Vance, West testified at trial that he found a bite mark on Williams’ thigh that was consistent with that of Stubbs.

But what prompted the new trial was West’s other testimony and evidence the prosecution didn’t turn over to the defense that could have been used to rebut it.

West reportedly enhanced a surveillance videotape from a Brookhaven hotel and testified that on the tape he could see two women pull a limp body from the toolbox in a pickup bed.

Stubbs’ father later received copies of FBI documents prosecutors had but didn’t show in which the FBI analysts reportedly concluded they couldn’t tell what objects were being unloaded.

In his deposition, West said when he testified at the Stubbs and Vance trial, he believed in the uniqueness of bite marks. “I no longer believe in that,” he said. “And if I was asked to testify in this case again, I would say I don’t believe it’s a system that’s reliable enough to be used in court.”

Whatever testimony he gave at the trial “was the truth to the best of my knowledge,” he said. “Today I don’t believe that.”

That’s a far cry from the West, who declared in one case that his error rate was “something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ.”

After the exonerations of Brewer and Brooks – in which the office of Attorney General Jim Hood played a role – Hood talked of examining 20 or so cases in which West was involved.

Given West’s reversal, Stubbs and Vance are hoping Hood’s office will drop the charges against them.

Hood’s spokeswoman, Jan Schaefer, said he couldn’t comment on the case outside the court file and filings.

“The attorney general has recognized that bite mark evidence can be unreliable – and last fall he committed himself to investigating cases of innocence in which Dr. West testified,” said Valena Beety, an attorney for the Mississippi Innocence Project representing Stubbs. “Yet, a year later, his office is seeking to re-try two women wrongly convicted in large part due to the testimony of Dr. West in 2001.”

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law, which investigated the case, said Hood’s decision to reprosecute “is disappointing – both for my client and for the state’s criminal justice system overall.”

Eddie Lee Howard is on Mississippi’s death row because of West’s testimony, Carrington said.

“Mississippi is known nationally as the poster child for forensic fraud. It’s embarrassing. The attorney general’s office should be focused on repairing this damage, not perpetuating it.”

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Leigh Stubbs Bitemark Case Vacated

A judge has thrown out the convictions of two women after having each served 11 years in prison.  Innocence Project lawyers were able to show critical evidence was withheld at the time of the trial.  A video surveillance tape that was published on this blog in an earlier post was analyzed by Dr. Michael West who testified in court that the two women could be seen carrying in a body to the motel room.  The FBI had reviewed the tape and were unable to come to any conclusions because of the poor quality of the tape.  The prosecution withheld this information from the defense.

Fabricated Bitemark and Phony Surveillance Video Land Leigh Stubbs 44 Years in Mississippi Prison

By David Averill and Mike Bowers

Leigh Stubbs, Department of Corrections Photo

Leigh Stubbs has now served 10 years of a 44 year sentence based largely on the faulty testimony from discredited forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West. West testified in this trial as a multi-disciplinary expert and was allowed to give his opinion in bitemark analysis, toolmark comparison, video enhancement, crime scene reconstruction, gynecological injuries and psychological criminal motive. Of course he reminds the jury every chance he can get that he is qualified in all of these areas, and that he has lectured to the FBI, Scotland Yard and throughout China.

Stubbs is now being represented by the Innocence Project who are now petitioning for a new trial. This is yet another case that has wreaked havoc with the judicial system by offering West’s bogus expert opinion where he is once again the only one able to see the evidence that he describes. The prosecutor still used West’s testimony in this case despite West having been thoroughly discredited by every major forensic organization in the world. Not to mention the numerous cases that are adding up where innocent men have been wrongfully convicted of crimes that they did not commit due to his faulty testimony.

Bitemark Evidence
Dr. West narrates his first video as he records his “body scan” to document the examination. The video shown below is a clip taken from the right hip where West makes no mention of recognizing a bitemark. In court when asked why there was no mention of the bitemark, he testifies that ”I missed it on the first day but realized that there was a bite after looking at some polaroid photographs that I had taken.”

In court, West describes the alleged bitemark on the hip as “not a prototypical bite mark in appearance….it has fused components from the swelling” yet he is able to give it his strongest opinion, “100 percent sure that it is a bitemark.” West cautions the jury that “I must admit to a novice, this may not appear to be a bitemark by any means.” In other words, West can only see it as a bitemark.

In his second video taken 5 days later on March 15th the area that West says “that the bitemark is no longer visible due to the nurses taking such good care of the victim and using lotion on her skin.” West then proceeds to tamper with the evidence by actually imbedding a stone cast of Leigh Stubbs teeth into the comatose victims hip resulting in a fabricated bitemark on the skin of the victim.

West comes to the conclusion that the bitemark that he sees on the hip is from the teeth of Leigh Stubbs since “the corner of tooth #7 has a little sharp area, very minute… on the skin notice this red area, we have petechia….this is the area caused by the little notch on her tooth #7…..that dot, that dot and that dot represent three teeth.” “Its a pretty good relationship there, it falls short of what we need to make 100 percent.” “There is a high degree of correlation between those teeth and this injury on this girl’s leg”. Dr. West submitted a West bitemark Report that contained two paragraphs.

Enhancement and Interpretation of Surveillance Video
The surveillance video was recorded at the motel the three girls rented for the night. The video was brought to Dr. Wests attention by the Detective in the case who thought he could see a body being removed from a toolbox in the bed of the pickup truck. Dr. West agreed that he could also see the body and said he could enhance the video to make it more visible. The police department had sent the video to the FBI for analysis and enhancement but were told that nothing could be done with the video. Dr. West then saves the day by “enhancing” the video and despite admitting that “we have a very poor imaging system…that is not designed to take high definition pictures….but probably the most important problem we have with the video is the tape had been recorded over and over and over….its about worn out.” No problem for Dr. West though, “what I see isn’t what everybody else sees, there are interpretations.” Don’t worry about your eyes if you cannot see anything on this enhanced video, remember that West is usually the only one to see what he is talking about.

West Interpretation of Video
“All the action we’re interested in now takes place between this truck and that light…as fate would have it this is where the tape had a wrinkle or started messing up…what I’m saying happens next in this clip. You’ve got to imagine her scooping her up and holding that head, with the hair to the side, closing the lid, turning around, stepping off the truck and going into the room.”
Amazing action since the timeline is 16 seconds for Leigh Stubbs to leave the motel door, get to the truck, lift the lid of a toolbox and pull a 120 pound limp unconcious person out from within a toolbox in 1-2 seconds and then haul her out of the back of the pickup stepping down and into the motel room, all within 16 seconds. It only gets more bizarre as Dr. West now recreates the crime scene. West cannot explain how come when the crime lab looked for blood, hair and fiber inside the toolbox they found none that belonged to the victim. They also found no blood on the carpet or in the bathtub of the motel room. West tried to explain that the toolbox could be washed out with water and chlorine. Problem is that they found other hair and fiber inside the box that did not belong to the victim. So much for his crime scene re-creation abilities.

Toolmark Testimony
Dr. West looked at the wound on the head of the victim and thought it looked like the latch that was on the toolbox. And when he looked at the hip where he found the bitemark he also found a toolmark in the shape of a latch from the toolbox. He measured the distance from the head wound and the hip wound and found 37 inches. You guessed it, the distance from the latches on the tool box is 37 inches. A forensic pathologist testified that the wound to the head could not have been made by closing of the lid on her head. The wound was consistent with a blunt object. Read more of the trial testimony if you are interested. I will include pdf copies of the trial at the end of this post.

Conclusion
Unfortunately the police did not do a thorough investigation, so the answers to many questions will never be known. What is known is that Leigh Stubbs dentition cannot be associated with what Dr. West describes as a bitemark on the hip of the victim.

NPR Investigates Bogus Bitemark Claims

Forensic Bitemark Analysis Ruins Lives

Dr. Michael West was once known as a world-renowned forensic odontologist.  His robust resume overflowed with case credentials from the FBI and Scotland Yard.  Police and prosecutors from across this nation purchased his expert witness services, earning him accolades in newspapers, forensic journals, and other major media outlets.  He was a crime fighter extraordinaire appearing in Newsweek magazine.  Dr. West’s trained expertise is in forensic odontology, a specialty of the forensic sciences.  He made his name analyzing bitemarks on skin.

Exonerated after spending 15 years in prison

 

Dr. West’s career terminally imploded after authorities examined DNA left at the crime scenes that did not belong to either convicted men.  Instead, the DNA implicated one man from both crime scenes that had been free while the innocent men both served 15 years in prison.

Free at last

The American Board of Forensic Odontology reports this case on their blog.  What you don’t see on the ABFO blog is the many other additional exonerations of innocent men wrongfully convicted by ABFO certified dentists through bitemark evidence.  Perhaps the ABFO only publishes Dr. West’s case is that he resigned his certification and is no longer a member.

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