“I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis.”

Monday, August 6th, 2012

That’s infamous bite mark “specialist” Michael West, in a deposition last year for the Leigh Stubbs case.

This comes after West has put dozens of people in prison with bite mark testimony, including several on death row. Two of them, Eddie Lee Howard in Mississippi and Jimmie Duncan in Louisiana, are still awaiting execution.

The office of Mississippi Attorney Jim Hood so far has so far refused to go back and reopen all the old cases in which West has testified. Hood should have done that a long time ago. For that matter, the same goes for Hood’s predecessors. And the Mississippi Supreme Court. We’ve known for nearly 20 years now that this guy was a fraud. Hell, we’ve had video evidence. Lots of it. No much cared. Because, as one former Mississippi prosecutor told me, “Nobody wants to be the one to unravel that ball of yarn.”

Will Hood’s office still defend convictions won on West’s testimony now that even West himself concedes his field of expertise is quackery? I’ll be surprised if he does. My guess is that they’ll begrudgingly offer plea bargains to lesser charges that will be too appealing for defendants to turn down. That way convictions stay intact, and nobody has to admit that the system is broken.

But of course it is broken. I don’t know how you take West’s statements at the Stubbs’ depositions, compare them with the multitude of institutions in Mississippi (and Louisiana, and a few other states) that have defended and upheld West’s testimony and expertise over the years, and not conclude that significant parts of the criminal justice system are fundamentally flawed.

I mean, we could have concluded all of that well before West’s come to Jesus moment. It’s been clear for years that he’s a fraud. But it’s sure as hell clear now that he admits it.


— Radley

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22 Responses to ““I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis.””

  1. #1 |  Dante | 

    “parts of the criminal justice system are fundamentally broken.”

    Those parts comprise 99% of the system. What would an engineer do if 99% of the system he was working on were broken? An auto mechanic? A computer technician?

    What would any reasonable person do when they discover that the massive, expensive, complex system they were working on was 99% broken, and had produced nothing but failure?

  2. #2 |  Helmut O' Hooligan | 

    Well then no one should ever believe in Michael West again. Sound fair?

  3. #3 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Who do come-to-Jesus moments always happen years later,
    in the shower, instead of right in front of the crowded courtroom?
    That would be such a great spectacle: “I just decided, Your Honor, this whole song-and-dance, it’s bullshit, smoke and mirrors, a big charade designed to fool gullible jurors and increase conviction rates. My conscience tells me I can’t do this. Sorry guys, I gotta run now. Hot date. Can I be excused?”

  4. #4 |  albatross | 

    Whenever I see this stuff, I wonder what fraction of people in prison actually are guilty of what they were charged with, and what fraction are at least guilty of something *close* to what they were charged with (like someone who really was dealing drugs, but who didn’t sell *those particular* drugs to that particular informant on that particular day).

    And I wonder what would happen if we knew the answer to that question. What if 10% of the people in prison are honest-to-God innocent of anything related to what they are in for? Or 20%? Or more? How would we know? And if we knew, what would we do? Would any politician want to take the heat for letting out a lot of people who probably included mostly innocent people? Or would they fear being crucified if one of the released people committed a big spectacular crime? (You don’t have to guess about that, just look at how the Bush and Obama administration have handled people at Guantanamo who were probably not ever involved with Al Qaida, but might have been–the fear that one of these guys would be involved in another attack was enough that we’ll keep a lot of them locked up forever.)

  5. #5 |  (B)oscoH, Yogurt Eater | 

    Nature abhors a vacuum. People are generally uncomfortable with unresolved facts. So it leaves a hole wider than the original goatse.cx guy for evidentiary entrepreneurs to fit right in.

    Another case… I don’t know if any of you followed the tragedy of Lennox the “accused pit bull” in Belfast, NI who was recently put down by court order. Under NI’s Dangerous Dog Act, he was confiscated two years ago on suspicion of being a pit bull. Great Britain actually has an “expert” on the “pit bull type”, who just happened to be in town and available to confirm, with a measuring tape, that Lennox was (and they use this phrase) “of type”. The guy’s name is Peter Tallack, and he is a real piece of work. Within a month of declaring Lennox a pit bull, he wrote a position paper for revising NI’s DDA that would continue the breed bans to deal with bad people (read “gang bangers” in American slang) who raise these dogs to fight or intimidate, but would grant exemptions to families who often don’t know the predominant breed of a dog they acquire until it is full grown. Such exempted families could keep the dog in home pending exemption, rather than have it confiscated and housed in much less ideal circumstances for the animal.

    What Tallack shows is that once you get in the back door, there’s plenty of room to move around and adjust and keep yourself positioned as “the expert” regardless of how shaky your knowledge is to begin with. Legal systems seem to eat this bogus crap up because it provides more “certainty”, regardless of actual correctness.

  6. #6 |  Bergman | 

    The thing about real science is that if you stop believing in it, it’s still accurate and provably true. Gravity for example.

    If something stops looking accurate and true due to a lack of belief, then it was never accurate or true at all.

  7. #7 |  marie | 

    Shaken baby syndrome, bite mark analysis…there must be other discredited “technologies.”

    I wonder if DNA testing will ever be discredited in some way. Right now, it is seen as infallible. That worries me.

  8. #8 |  Bill Wells | 

    The so-called criminal justice system is, well, criminal. Having experienced it first hand, I can say that any justice it does is purely accidental. Anyway, you might want to check out one of my posts: Who Is the Criminal, the Convict or the Government?

  9. #9 |  stlgonzo | 

    If we actually had a justice system West would be in jail.

  10. #10 |  EH | 

    Yes, West should be in prison, a load lightened only if he helps to take Hood down, or at least the system that allowed West’s charade to persist.

  11. #11 |  Bee | 

    Meh – forget West. Maybe there is something that can be done to help those he’s helped incarcerate. Cory Maye is free – maybe West’s victims can get justice eventually, too.

  12. #12 |  SJE | 

    What does Scalia say now? How confident is he that there is “no proof that anyone has executed an innocent man,” when the guy whose evidence is responsible for capital convictions admits it’s quackery? Why should police and prosecutors be granted immunity?

    If this was a commercial law case, West and Hood would be charged with fraud.

  13. #13 |  Bergman | 

    Re: marie, #7:

    It already has.

    The FBI claims that their method of matching suspects to a DNA database is such that there is only a 1 in 13 billion chance of the wrong person being matched to a crime scene sample in error. This is told to juries, when they are shown DNA test results, to convince them that the accused really did commit the crime in question.

    In Arizona’s state DNA database alone, there are at least 122 people that match eachother closely enough that they would be a solid DNA match using the FBI methodology. There are at least 10 people in the Arizona database who match to a greater degree than the FBI method looks for.

    Google Troyer DNA. It’s a scary concept.

  14. #14 |  EH | 

    SJE: I believe Scalia’s sophistry depends on executions always being performed on people who have been convicted. To him, a conviction means guilty, and if you slide the terminology down to “wrongfully convicted,” then he’ll just say that that’s what the appeals process is designed for.

  15. #15 |  Discord | 

    “Nobody wants to be the one to unravel that ball of yarn.”


  16. #16 |  Judi | 

    Radley, Keith says he will be calling soon. I’ve asked him when this ‘project’ we spoke about will begin. Hopefully soon. I believe that national and international exposure on the big screen will certainly light a fire the asses of the powers that be. Both Hayne and West are going down. And in all fairness, the credit belongs to you!

  17. #17 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    Regarding what happens when “scientific” methodologies are demonstrated to be so much bushwa; phrenology was once take very seriously. Now its only presence in the popular culture is passing mention in a couple of Bugs Bunny cartoons, and the retro-phrenologist in Terry Pratchett’s books. I don’t know if it was ever used in court as evidence, but I would be surprised if it wasn’t. Does anybody know what the fallout was like when it fell out of favor?

  18. #18 |  Mendelism | 

    @marie#7, Bergman#13

    This is a concern of mine as well. It’s technically not a problem of misusing the technology, but rather abuse of statistics that can lead to incorrect interpretation of DNA test results. Speaking without much specific knowledge of molecular forensics (but as a population geneticist), my guess is that that 1 in 13 billion figure is an estimate of the probability that any two DNA samples chosen at random would match each other at the level of resolution of that test. Which is fine as far as it goes, since this is equivalent statistically to the probability that a sample drawn from a crime suspect happens to match a sample found at the scene of a crime for which that individual was already suspected.

    The problem is, as Bergman hints at, DNA fingerprinting may be used in a much different way: a sample is found at a crime scene, and then screened against a database of possible suspects, and then a “hit” provides evidence against one or more individuals who are then investigated for the crime. In that situation, the 1 in 13 billion figure is entirely inappropriate. The odds of an “incidental” match in that situation are much much higher, and how much higher depends on the size of the database and the resolution of the test. I would imagine the historical/”legacy” panels of DNA markers used for these tests are not very high-res at all.

    My hope is that as these databases become large enough (and of course they will, for better or worse) that they routinely return more than one “suspect” for a single specimen from a crime scene, the 1 in 13 billion or whatever numbers will be seen as clearly wrong. However as an avid reader of this blog, I’m not at all optimistic about this.

  19. #19 |  el coroando | 

    Didn’t we just read about an ex-DEA guy who’d decided all his ‘work’ was useless, evil, and immoral not more than a couple of days ago? Now Dr. Bitey McBiterson recants everything HE stood for; everything he testified under oath was truer than shit; everything he ruined people’s lives for; all that.

    Aw, that’s sweet. Should we give them hugs & lollipops?

    Tell ya what, fellas. When y’all decide to back your newfound contrition by initiating ‘get ’em outta prison’ lawsuits…..or volunteer your time & testimony to the various Innocence Projects…or go to the DOJ/Supreme Court to force the reluctant D.A.’s to take action……Or (LOL) donate your pension checks to the families of the poor bastards rotting in prison because of (what you now admit is) your tyrannical and mendacious actions over the years…..then you can proclaim your wonderfulness. Until then, I ain’t impressed, and I ain’t buying your remarkably-easy-on-yourselves mea culpas. (“Hey, mistakes were made. We regret that mistakes were made.”)

  20. #20 |  marie | 

    Bergman and Mendelism…thanks. Yes, the DNA database will grow. Lawmakers love this shit.

  21. #21 |  albatross | 

    I suspect the fraction of judges who understand either the statistical problem with DNA matches in a database, or anything at all about how DNA testing works, is very small. Overwhelmingly, as a society, our elites are not actually all that elite.

  22. #22 |  albatross | 

    el coronado:

    It’s always a win for people to realize they’re doing something evil and stop doing it, even if that doesn’t fix all the damage they did. At any rate, unless the DEA agent has admitted making up evidence or beating confessions out of people or something, nothing he can say would get anyone out of jail. All he can do is recognize he was doing something bad, stop, and apologize in public for the damage. That’s all anyone can do in that situation.