Tomorrow, I’ll have another investigative piece here at Reason about self-proclaimed Mississippi bite mark expert, Dr. Michael West. This latest article details a sting an attorney set up on West that pretty conclusively shows West to be a fraud.
It’s good timing, because earlier this month, West gave an interview to the A.P. in which he defended his court testimony over the years. The interview came in response to recent lawsuit filed by Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, two men convicted of separate rapes and murders almost entirely thanks to West’s bite mark expertise. The two were later exonerated by DNA evidence. A third man has since confessed to both crimes.
Much of the interview consists of West’s usual defense—that someone else must have raped and killed the victims while the men West helped convict bit them. It’s absurd. It would require two boyfriends, on occasions two years apart, who lived within miles of one another, to have each bitten the young daughters of their girlfriends while a third man, the same man, raped and killed the girls.
But there are a couple of parts of the article that are worth addressing. First:
“What did I testify to that was incorrect? If they knew that they didn’t kill this child and I never testified that they killed this child, where have I torted them?” West said.
He “torted” them by giving testimony unsupported by any scientific literature (other than journal articles written by West himself), knowing full well that his testimony would be used to help convict them. West’s behavior in the Jimmie Duncan case, which occurred at about the same time as the Brooks and Brewer cases, and which I wrote about last April, suggests that at the very least he at the time was employing a method of analysis that has been thoroughly discredited, even by other experts in the already suspect field of forensic odontology. That’s at best. At worst, he was manufacturing evidence.
West, in court documents filed this week, also says his testimony wasn’t the basis of Brewer’s conviction, saying it wasn’t the “the centerpiece of the prosecution.”
This is false. The bite marks were the only physical evidence linking either Brooks or Brewer to either crime. Moreover, when DNA testing on the semen found in the victim initially cleared Kennedy Brewer back in 2002, District Attorney Forrest Allgood refused to exonerate Brewer, citing West’s bite mark testimony as proof that even if Brewer didn’t rape and kill the little girl, the bite marks West was able to match up showed Brewer must have had something to do with her death. Allgood’s clinging to West’s testimony kept Brewer in prison an extra five years.
Speaking of Allgood:
“I told Dr. West years ago that we were not going to use him anymore because, quite frankly, he carries too much baggage,” said District Attorney Forrest Allgood in Columbus. “You spent your whole trial defending him as opposed to trying the defendant.”
I don’t know what Allgood means by “years ago,” but again, he was relying on West’s testimony as late as 2007 to keep Kennedy Brewer in jail. Allgood also continued using West well after West was suspended by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1994. And note that Allgood doesn’t say he stopped using West because West is unscientific. Only because it made it harder to win and protect convictions.
“I don’t want to do any more death information. I don’t want public office,” West said. “I’ve lost faith in the system.”
Tragic. Reminds me of the old Groucho Marx line, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”
District Attorney Ronnie Harper of Lauderdale County said West was once accepted as an expert by courts all over the South.
“This is not some witch doctor that people were calling because they didn’t have any other evidence. People thought the guy knew what he was talking about,” Harper said.
This is partially true. West was accepted as an expert by courts all over the south. But he was also getting calls because prosecutors didn’t have any other evidence, or at least not enough to ensure a conviction. And because prosecutors were so eager to win convictions, they didn’t bother to look at West’s ridiculous claims with any skepticism. Any scientist who claims he has developed a test that only he can perform, and that can’t be duplicated or photographed—as West did with his black light and yellow goggles method of identifying bite marks—isn’t a scientist. And his test isn’t science. Plenty of people in the forensics community were sending out red flags about West dating back to the early 1990s. Prosecutors refused to heed those warnings out of self-interest. The “everyone else was doing it” defense doesn’t fly.
Alternate light imaging that West pioneered is still being used today, said Dr. Robert Barsley, a Louisiana State University dental professor and the secretary of the American Academy of Forensic Science.
“In fact, in dentistry today, it’s used to detect cancer,” said Barsley, a friend of West.
Barsley acknowledged the attention surrounding West hasn’t helped the use of bite mark evidence at trial.
“Certainly in some cases, not only Dr. West’s cases, people disagreed with the results of odontology. Anytime you have disagreements that lessens the impact of the evidence,” Barsley said.
Penalty flag on the A.P reporter, here. It would probably be helpful to know that the expert defending West in this passage is not only a friend, but was actually a co-author on many of West’s journal articles about the use of fluorescent light to identify bite marks. Barslay absolutely has an interest in defending West’s methods, given that he helped popularize them. That should have been included in the article.
I hadn’t heard that some form of West’s methods for bite mark identification are now being use to detect cancer. That may be. But I’m not sure how that’s relevant to their efficacy in identifying bite marks, and matching them to one suspect to the exclusion of everyone else.
Finally, Barsley’s understatement of what’s at stake here is laughable. This is not about “people” disagreeing with West’s testimony. And it’s not about the “impact” of odontological evidence. It’s about near unanimity among forensic scientists that West has for years been giving testimony based on forensic methods that have zero basis in science. And he’s been doing it to help put people in prison. Or send them to death row. West’s methods are pretty roundly condemned even within the field of forensic odontology, a field that itself was recently lambasted by a report published by the National Academy of Sciences.
More coming tomorrow.