After years of fighting a murder conviction that had relied heavily on dubious evidence, a Mississippi man who spent more than quarter of a century behind bars won dismissal of his case last week.
The man, Eddie Lee Howard, 67, had remained on death row even though his conviction was based on little more than bite marks on a murder victim, which were presented as evidence at his trial by an expert whose testimony has since been called into question.
Mr. Howard’s conviction for capital murder was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court last year, and he was released in December. Last week, a judge approved a motion by the Lowndes County District Attorney’s Office to dismiss the case.
“I agree with the Supreme Court that bite mark evidence has come under important scrutiny,” said the district attorney, Scott Colom. “Besides that evidence, there was nothing else putting Mr. Howard at the scene of the murder.”
Mr. Colom added that DNA on a weapon at the crime scene had been shown to belong to someone other than Mr. Howard. “That could be viewed as exculpatory,” he said.
In 1994, Mr. Howard was convicted in the 1992 killing of Georgia Kemp, 84, who was found dead in her home in Lowndes County, Miss. An autopsy found that she died from two stab wounds, according to court records, and that Ms. Kemp also had injuries consistent with rape — but no visible bite marks.
The expert testimony on bite marks came from Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who was sought out by prosecutors across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. He said the bite marks on Ms. Kemp’s body, which he had found using ultraviolet light, matched Mr. Howard’s teeth.
But lawyers representing Mr. Howard have argued that bite marks were not a reliable form of forensic evidence.
“The reality is, there was never any evidence against Eddie Lee Howard,” said Chris Fabricant, a lawyer for Mr. Howard and the director of strategic litigation with the Innocence Project. “It’s astonishing.”
Bite-mark evidence has played a role in hundreds of cases, and its use in the 1979 trial of Ted Bundy thrust it into the public spotlight.
“As it started to gain acceptance into the courtroom, nobody was really challenging the scientific validity of it,” said Mary Bush, a professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Dental Medicine who is an expert in forensic dentistry and bite-mark analysis and served as an expert witness for Mr. Howard in 2016.
But in the years since, the method has been criticized by experts who see it as ineffective.
Because human skin is elastic, bite marks can easily become distorted, Dr. Bush said. “Unless you have DNA, you really can’t use a bite mark to identify somebody,” she added.
Even Dr. West appears to have questioned their value. Court documents show that in a 2012 deposition for a different case, Dr. West said he did not think bite-mark analysis should be used in court.
But when Mr. Fabricant questioned him about that statement in 2016, he did not renege on his testimony at Mr. Howard’s murder trial. “I can make mistakes,” he said. “Do I think I made any mistakes in this case? No.”
Attempts to reach Dr. West for comment by phone on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
At least 26 people in the United States have been wrongfully convicted as a result of bite-mark evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
Mr. Howard was locked away at Parchman, a high-security prison in the Mississippi Delta. Built on the grounds of a former plantation, the facility has a reputation for harsh conditions and violent outbreaks.
Mr. Howard was convicted of the same crime twice. His first capital murder conviction, in 1994, was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1997. But he was tried again in 2000 — when prosecutors brought in Dr. West — and convicted.
At the time, Forrest Allgood was the district attorney for Lowndes County. He also prosecuted the cases of two other men — Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer — whose convictions were based on bite-mark analysis. Dr. West also testified in those cases, and those convictions were eventually overturned.
Mr. Allgood did not immediately return a message requesting comment on Wednesday.
Mr. Colom became the county’s district attorney in 2015. When Mr. Howard’s case came to his desk, he said, dismissing it was not a difficult decision.
“It’s a great example of why we have to have the ability, in the criminal system, to look back and correct errors,” said Mr. Colom, who has called for the establishment of a wrongful-conviction unit at the state level.
Mr. Fabricant said Mr. Howard’s wrongful conviction had resulted not only from prosecutors’ reliance on flawed forensics but from structural inequities with deep roots.
“It’s a story about junk science, but it’s really about the American criminal justice system,” he said. “It’s a racist, biased prosecution based on a story about a vulnerable, elderly white person being attacked by a Black man, who was convicted with zero due process and sent to a former slave plantation to wait to be executed.”
Mr. Howard, he said, was doing his best to readjust to life outside of prison, enjoying the things he did not have access to before — fresh sheets, warm baths — and working in a restaurant kitchen.
Mr. Howard was not available for comment on Wednesday. But in a statement provided by Mr. Fabricant, Mr. Howard thanked those who had fought for his release.
“Without your hard work on my behalf,” he said, “I would still be confined in that terrible place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, waiting to be executed.”