More on Michael West’s Response

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Last Thursday, we posted my report about a video of a bite mark examination in Louisiana that showed possible criminal evidence tampering by Mississippi dentist and self-proclaimed bite mark expert Dr. Michael West. The evidence was used to help convict Jimmie Duncan of raping and murdering 23-month-old Haley Oliveaux. West responded a few days later in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. A few comments on his response:

“I’ve exonerated three or four times as many people as I’ve convicted,” he said. “I’m a little old dentist from Hattiesburg, and I’ve got the top lawyers in the country coming after me. The New York Times wrote an editorial on me. Why? They can’t stand the evidence.”

I’ve already put up a post addressing West’s comment about “They can’t stand the evidence.”

I don’t know what West means by “I’ve exonerated three or four times as many people as I’ve convicted.” Certainly he doesn’t mean he testifies for the defense more than he testified for prosecutors. I consulted with some defense attorneys in Mississippi with knowledge of West’s history, and they couldn’t think of a single time he has testified for the defense. That isn’t to say it’s never happened. But it is to say it wasn’t that often, and certainly not three or four more times than he has testified for prosecutors.

One defense attorney theorized that West is referring here to the fact that in some of these cases, police or prosecutors will bring him four or five dental molds, and from these he’ll pick one that matches whatever bite mark he has allegedly found. In his mind, this may mean he has “exonerated” the others. It’s too bad the reporter didn’t ask him to elaborate (West won’t talk to me at all). But he clearly isn’t using the word “exonerate” in the way it’s commonly understood.

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

“You can’t make an inflammatory response on a dead person,” he said.

I asked Michael Bowers about this. Bowers is the dentist I first showed the video to, and who was so incensed by what he saw that he offered to submit an affidavit for Jimmie Duncan’s defense. Bowers is a widely respected forensic odontologist. He is dismissive of bite mark analysis as a means of positively identifying someone because, he says, that sort of analysis has no basis in science (a position emphatically hammered home by the National Academy of Sciences report a couple of weeks ago).

In any case, Bowers says West is correct on the obvious point that you can’t induce an inflammation in a dead person. But Bowers says that what West is doing in the video isn’t causing an inflammation, but scraping away layers of skin with the mold of Duncan’s teeth. Likewise, the abrasion that appears after a break in the video that wasn’t there as the video opens is an abrasion caused by some sort of trauma to the cheek. It is not an inflammation.

More from West:

He defended pressing the mold against Haley’s cheek, saying he was following protocol Bowers laid out in his manual that says bite-mark comparisons can be made from “working study model to impression of wound.”

I asked Bowers about this statement, too. Bowers says West is lying. Bowers says that this is the technique West is referring to:

1. Photograph the injury using a ruler or scale.
2. Use dental impression material to make a mold of the skin.
3. Take this impression and pour dental plaster into it. This makes a model of the skin.
4. Use the suspect’s dental models to place onto the MODEL of the skin.
In the video, West does none of this. Instead, he takes a cast of the defendant’s teeth, and jams it directly into Haley Oliveaux’s skin more than 50 times. The technique Bowers describes and what West does in the video aren’t remotely similar. This isn’t a merely a case an expert using unconventional methods. West is altering evidence.
Finally,…
West said he doesn’t understand why he’s drawing criticism when another bite-mark expert testified for the prosecution at the capital murder trial of Jimmie Duncan, now on death row.

Of course that expert, Dr. Neal Riesner, performed his analysis based on photos of the bite marks West took after he had repeatedly jammed Jimmie Duncan’s dental mold into Haley Oliveaux’s body. Even here, Bowers and the NAS study would say Riesner was out of bounds. There’s simply no science to back up the notion that you can affirmatively match bite marks left on skin to a single individual. And to do so from photos of bite marks left on skin is even more problematic.

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23 Responses to “More on Michael West’s Response”

  1. #1 |  Aresen | 

    It’s too bad the reporter didn’t ask him to elaborate (West won’t talk to me at all).

    I am shocked, totally shocked. Why wouldn’t he talk to you?!?!

    ;)

  2. #2 |  supercat | 

    Bite mark evidence should certainly be considered conclusive in certain cases where it would be exculpatory (e.g. if a bite was produced by someone with relatively straight teeth, and the defendant’s corresponding teeth were crooked). It might even have some inculpatory value in cases where there is a finite pool of people who could have committed a crime and the evidence clearly only fits one of them. Unfortunately, prosecutors are apt to imply that evidence is far more meaningful than it actually is, but bite-mark evidence is hardly unique in that regard.

    I’m still flabbergasted, though, by how anyone can consider Dr. West’s “bite mark” evidence as being even remotely reasonable. To what extent are defense attorneys able to make juries aware of how Dr. West’s evidence comes about? I would think a good defense attorney should be able to have a field day. “In other words, places on the decedent’s body that you touched repeatedly with the mold of the defendant’s teeth have markings that match the mold of the defendant’s teeth.”

  3. #3 |  Judi | 

    Awwww…West loves Radley, he just has a hard time showing it. Once bitten, twice shy, I suppose!

    Of course Mr. Balko has been in West’s ‘grill’ and made some ‘biting’ remarks.

    LOL

  4. #4 |  MacGregory | 

    The REASON he won’t talk to you is simple: he is full of shit and he knows that you are the ultimate shit squeezer. That, and he knows that there is no forensic expert needed to testify to the bite marks you may leave in his ass.

  5. #5 |  Aaron Brown | 

    > has no basis in science science

    Did you only want one “science” here?

  6. #6 |  ClarkBlozier | 

    Jeebus..how is it that these investigations aren’t picked up by some media that might influence the public?

    (by public I mean those momma’s who outrage when Matt Lauer furrows his brows..or Oprah gets her panties in a twist..)

  7. #7 |  Bronwyn | 

    working study model to impression of wound

    Even if that’s what the book says, and this is what West thinks it says, this isn’t what West DID.

    Let’s break it down, shall we?

    working study model
    Key word there? Model. The dental mold, here, the study subject being the suspect.

    impression of wound
    Key word here? Impression. Not the wound, the IMPRESSION of the wound. As in, a MOLD.

    As a PhD-level scientist, maybe I have some understanding of these terms that the average lay-fella may not, but I think that’s a reach. And West should certainly understand what that means.

    Really, there truly isn’t a sufficient punishment for this ….

  8. #8 |  Windypundit | 

    “has no basis in science science”

    I assumed that was a bit of snark, contrasting forensic science with the far superior science science, but since Radley has changed it, I guess it was just a typo.

  9. #9 |  Lorraine Sumrall | 

    My son is 14 and I showed him the video of West pushing the dental mold into the little girl’s face, and my son said “Mama, you mean these men that did this aren’t in prison?” Even a KID can see through this crap.

  10. #10 |  Thomas Paine's Goiter | 

    Burn in hell Michael West.

  11. #11 |  Michael | 

    I was thinking exactly what Dr Bowers said, before I got to his comments! The skin in a cadaver, before embalming, is very fragile. The epithelium was rubbed off, leaving the underlying dermis (very vascular, thus red) exposed. It has nothing to do with an inflammatory response (In the blog it might look better to write ….”It is not an inflammatory response, or “You could leave the “an” out “It is not inflammation”.)

    With the points made about the lack of following the “standard of care”, it should leave Dr West open to a negligence suit. But, giving him the benefit of the doubt, it may have not been an intentional criminal act. Maybe, it needs further investigation into that premise.

    I had never heard of making the skin mold, not being a forensic pathologist. (I guess I did not watch enough of CSI, yet!) And, it sounds like the most reasonable thing to do. It would have avoided this travesty completely. He proved his ignorance, in denying that he had caused the marks, by claiming it was not an inflammatory response. No one seemed to be claiming that! I hate to judge, being no ways perfect myself. But, I would be ashamed of making the statements and performing my work in the way he, allegedly, did! Especially, when it resulted in putting an innocent man in jail.

  12. #12 |  Spleen | 

    or Oprah gets her panties in a twist..

    How many of West’s and Haynes’ victims were black? This story might just be right up Oprah’s alley…

  13. #13 |  Chance | 

    “Jeebus..how is it that these investigations aren’t picked up by some media that might influence the public?”

    My two cents: if more people actually demanded in-depth, hard hitting stories like the kind here on the agitator, the supply of such stories should eventually rise to meet that demand, right? For the most part, that doesn’t seem to be happening. Why not?

    * Is it ideology? I.e. “statists” covering for their own? Maybe in some cases, but it seems too broad to cover everybody.
    * No real supply? Nothing left to report, the Agitator pretty much covered it already? (You’re strong in the Force Mr. Balko, but not that strong).
    * No real demand? People say they want real coverage, but only pay for the shallow? Seems like a strong contender to me.

  14. #14 |  ClarkBlozier | 

    Chance – if my held belief of how interaction amongst traders is true, and I reckon it is, then you’d be right. Sadly.

  15. #15 |  Steve Verdon | 

    * No real demand? People say they want real coverage, but only pay for the shallow? Seems like a strong contender to me.

    And on that note, lets talk about the Rhianna-Chris Brown thing….

    Meh.

  16. #16 |  Zargon | 

    “My son is 14 and I showed him the video of West pushing the dental mold into the little girl’s face, and my son said “Mama, you mean these men that did this aren’t in prison?” Even a KID can see through this crap.”

    Actually, kids are far more likely to have a consistent set of ethics than adults. It takes years of training to get human beings to apply one set of ethics to some people, and another set to other people.

    Humans aren’t born believing it’s okay for police and other government agents to kick people around like dirt, but many adults believe it. Children have no problem extending the basic rules of conduct (don’t hurt people or steal their stuff) to everybody, but virtually all adults do.

  17. #17 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    #2 Supercat:
    “Unfortunately, prosecutors are apt to imply that evidence is far more meaningful than it actually is, but bite-mark evidence is hardly unique in that regard.”

    Good point. Some evidence can provide investigators with class characteristics, but will not necessarily result in an identification. This is generally true of hair evidence. You can obviously determine hair color and racial background (ie. referred to in forensic analysis as caucasoid, negroid, mongoloid), but the root sheath of the hair must be intact if you wish to extract the DNA necessary for an actual identification. If we hold techniques like bite mark analysis to a more rigorous standard, we may, as Supercat suggests, find that we can only narrow down the suspect pool. It’s just as well though, because a criminal conviction should really be based upon multiple factors (testimonial, circumstantial and physical).

  18. #18 |  Michael | 

    I saw, on another site, that one thought was that the child had skull fractures from shaken baby syndrome? It is my understanding that that is far fetched! When you hear all these “experts” saying things that, frankly, just don’t make sense, you the wonder about any of the work!! The child did receive CPR from more than one person. So who is to say what kind of injury can happen, with crushing a child’s chest for an hour or more? Especially, if any of those people had little experience or training in administering CPR. I would expect it would be hard to distinguish, if a brain injury came from that, or from the child being shaken. My gut feeling tells me that the shaken baby would have hemorrhage, in addition to swelling in the brain tissue. Whereas, the CPR should not cause hemorrhage. At the same time, any swelling, in the brain tissue, could be a normal post mortum finding in a child who received CPR for a prolonged period of time.

    The question in this case seems to be the “rectal injury”. Would it not be even more sad if the evidence supplied ended up tainting the other evidence presented at a new trial? There are certain points, I would wonder about.

    If a rectal speculum was used in the same, “careful” manner that the bite marks were inspected, could that evidence be any more believable? An excessively forceful exam of the anus and rectum could result in superficial tearing of the mucosa, resulting in an injury that look just like anal fissures. It would really be a shame if a child molester could potentially get away with murder because of shoddy work done at the original autopsy! This case sucks, big time!

  19. #19 |  Michael | 

    And, another thought….I think bite mark evidence would require, at least, perforation of the skin by the teeth, with an obvious injury. That is the only way it could be replicated, as noted, in the casting procedures above. It just seems that discoloration of the skin should not have been enough to form an opinion, that would justify bite mark analysis, in the first place. (other than the opinion that someone, like Dr West, could get paid for doing it!) And, I must agree that the initial video, of the little girl, taken the first day, showed no, obvious, evidence of the injury. Is there more footage on either day, that shows the body, from the same distance, for comparison? Just thinking out loud.

  20. #20 |  Michael | 

    Sorry, I had not looked at the reason article today. I now realize my question could be easily answered. There was a sufficiently close photograph, on both days, to ascertain that the marks seen on the second day, were absolutely, not there on the first! There are even two small scratches on the upper part of the cheek, as well, that were not there on the initial photograph. I have no doubts about how badly, the entire situation, involving this bite mark “evidence”, was manipulated!!

    The reason I wondered is because the lawyer on the other site was questioning what happened to the video of the patient in between the original, clean, face and the abraded face of the next day. Apparently, there is none! It said so right in the article. I wonder why the other lawyer did not catch that. He also chided on Mr Balko about not talking to Drs West or Hayne!! Maybe he could have taken his own advice and given Mr Balko a call! He could have easily found out that way!

  21. #21 |  Sky | 

    How many of West’s and Haynes’ victims were black? This story might just be right up Oprah’s alley…

    The majority of them!

    Michael wrote “An excessively forceful exam of the anus and rectum could result in superficial tearing of the mucosa, resulting in an injury that look just like anal fissures. It would really be a shame if a child molester could potentially get away with murder because of shoddy work done at the original autopsy!”

    There is not one shred of evidence to suggest this child was being sexually abused. None! Jimmie Duncan admitted leaving the child alone in the bath. The police originally believed him. It was not until Hayne/West got ahold of this child and created their own conclusions including sexual abuse that it became an issue.

  22. #22 |  Michael | 

    Sky,

    And, this is what needs to be determined! The legal system should be able to do that, if presented actual unaltered evidence!

  23. #23 |  Bill | 

    The individual at question should be freed immediately. From the evidence, it is clear Mr. West, for calling him a Dr. is not prudent, tampered with evidence. Whether this was harmless error or malicious intent is up for the courts to decide.

    Through West’s actions, the pool is tainted and the only resolution is to throw out all the water. If the case can not be put back together that is unfortunate, but for the system to hold up as a whole, one needs to have strict adherence to not tampering with evidence.

    Through such an action, the court will also surely label Mr. West’s actions in this case making it virtually impossible for him to find further employment as an expert witness. This action would be best to prevent further errors by this incompetent self serving individual.

    If anything, this situation proves that Mr. West is guilty of attempted murder through his actions of tampering with evidence. If the sentence is carried out, then it is murder.

    Do the right thing Mr. West and recant your testimony.

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