Category: Forensics

Morning Links

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

More on Jim Hood’s “Investigation” of Michael West

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

So I’ve written a couple times about how Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has claimed that his office is “investigating” the forensic bite mark fraud Michael West. I also pointed out that that it’s odd that Hood would claim he’s conducting this investigation just as his election opponent began criticizing him about West and Steven Hayne, that Hood has never mentioned such an investigation before, and that when I asked his office for even the most basic of details about the alleged investigation, they refused to provide me with any information.

Tonight I spoke on a panel in Oxford, Mississippi, about the Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks cases, just after a screening of Mississippi Innocence, a documentary about the two men and what they endured. (It’s a wonderful film, by the way. And if you’re human, it will make you weep.) Just before the movie started, I got a call from Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project. Carrington was down state for a hearing in the Leigh Stubbs case, a case in which Hood’s office is (once again) defending a conviction won primarily due to West’s testimony. (But it’s okay! Because Hood is investigating West!)

Carrington and his organization are representing Stubbs. So this afternoon, they asked the judge to order the state to turn over all material related to Hood’s alleged investigation of West, citing his statement to a local TV station a couple of weeks ago. According to Carrington, an assistant district attorney from Hood’s office then stood up and told the judge that he was the one who was overseeing the West investigation. So what materials would he be handing over? What has this meticulous investigation turned up?  The ADA said that so far, well more than a decade after West has been exposed as a fraud, nearly eight years after Hood first took office, three-and-a-half years after Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were exonerated after both were wrongly convicted of murder almost exclusively because of Steven Hayne and Michael West, 10 years after West was again revealed as a fraud in a sting conducted by a defense attorney—after all of that,  the guy overseeing the West investigation has so far . . . wait for it!  . . . done a Westlaw search on Michael West’s name.

That’s it. That’s the extent of the “investigation.” If you aren’t a lawyer, a Westlaw search is basically the legal-world equivalent of a Google search.

Let’s put this more bluntly: Jim Hood is full of shit. Meanwhile, the Mississippi press’s interest in the AG’s race and all of these issues apparently boils down to who bought dinner for whom at a steakhouse.Two years ago.

If, like me, you’ve ever wondered how the hell this scandal percolated for the better part of two decades, affected thousands of cases, sent innocent people to prison, allowed guilty people to remain free to commit more crimes, and no one gave a damn . . . well, I guess there’s your answer.

Jim Hood and “That Other Guy”

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood gave an interview to the Jackson Free Press last week. Most of it is the nauseating fluff you usually hear from politicians. Hood also wants to take a more active role in “policing the Internet,” whatever that means. He also wants to make it a felony to witness a felony and not report it. And he wants to do lots of things for the children. And orphans and widows. The man is nothing if not bold.

But here’s the fun part:

Last year, you spoke out against a bill that would require a pathologist in Mississippi to hold an American Board of Pathology certification saying it threatened cases involving Steve Hayne. Can you explain your position?

There has been a misconception, and (JFP managing editor) Ronni Mott did this. … She didn’t listen to what I had told her as well as that other guy who writes for the paper (freelancer and then-Reason magazine columnist Radley Balko). Dr. (Michael) West is someone we have investigated, and I don’t support him in any matter. It’s not that I have supported Steven Hayne in any matter. What I have said are the facts: When I was a DA, he testified against me in criminal cases. I always found him to do a good job. By saying that, they assume I am just supporting him all the way, which is absolutely not true.

I don’t know what Hood means when he ways that he doesn’t support West “in any matter,” but his office most certainly continues to defend convictions won based on West’s testimony. In at least two cases, Eddie Lee Howard and Leigh Stubbs, Hood’s office argued that the defendant was procedurally barred from asking for a new trial because of West, because they’d already challenged his testimony and had been denied. If Hood truly believes West isn’t a credible witness, why is he asking that people convicted due to West’s testimony be kept in prison (or in Howard’s case, on death row) on a technicality?

Hood has also previously mentioned some sort of investigation into West, but his office wouldn’t give me any specifics on what was being investigated, or who was doing the investigating. He has also yet to recommend a single conviction be overturned because it was tainted by West’s testimony. West’s lack of credibility has been common knowledge in the Mississippi legal community for well over a decade. What’s taking so long?

As for Hayne, Hood has also previously made the claim that Hayne often testified for the defense back when Hood was a prosecutor, thus I guess establishing Hayne’s impartiality. I’ve yet to find a single example of this. It may have happened, but it certainly wasn’t common, and was dwarfed by the thousands of times Hayne testified for the state. The last time Hood made this claim, I asked his office for a list of cases where Hayne testified for the defense, against Hood when Hood was a prosecutor.  Hood’s office did not respond to my request.

More from Hood:

As far as the legislation goes, what I was saying was if Dr. Hayne has done all these examinations, and say it was several years before—and you know it takes two or three years sometimes before a case goes to trial—then when he goes to take the witness stand, and the statute passes, they are going to be hammering him with the law. And trying to keep him on and qualified in a murder case that occurred before we passed the law will be difficult. … The second thing about a pathologist is that very seldom do they make or break a case. All they say is the manner of death and cause of death, and that’s about it.

The first part of this graph is clearly incorrect. The law passed, and Hayne is still testifying in those old cases. Thing is, the scenario Hood fears should be happening in Mississippi—and a hell of a lot more. Mississippi should be reviewing every case in which Hayne or West has ever testified. But it isn’t. And the law in question wouldn’t have done anything of the sort. It only made sure someone like Hayne couldn’t do autopsies for the state going forward. Hood is either really dumb, or he knew this, and spread misinformation anyway. Neither scenario speaks particularly well of him.

The last statement in the graph above is also plainly false. It may be the case that the testimony from a competent medical examiner doesn’t usually make or break a case, but Hayne often gave testimony that turned a case, and in a number of cases, that testimony was later found lacking by more credible medical examiners. There are currently three men on death row (two in Mississippi, one in Louisiana) who are there because of critical testimony from Hayne (and in the Louisiana case, also because of West). And Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both exonerated, would never have been convicted were it not for Hayne’s propensity to find bite marks no other doctor had seen, and for West’s “talent” to then match them to the state’s favored suspect. The state had no other evidence.

Steven Hayne, Expert for the Defense

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Last week, Steven Hayne testified for the defense in a Mississippi murder trial. If you’ll remember, now that he’s no longer permitted to do official state autopsies for prosecutors, Hayne has been shopping his services to the defense bar. This particular case was in Lowndes County, served by District Attorney Forrest Allgood, a third of the longtime Hayne/West/Allgood triumverate of injustice.

The defendant in this case was acquitted, thanks in large part to Hayne’s testimony. Nut graph:

The defense’s case was strengthened by the testimony of forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne, who concluded, based on the original autopsy report and Sharp’s testimony, that the first bullets fired hit Cole in the front of his body, while the two entrance wounds to his back were among the last to occur….

During rebuttal, prosecutor Rhonda Hayes-Ellis recalled forensic pathologist, Dr. Adele Lewis, who performed the autopsy on Cole’s body. Lewis said Wednesday that there was no way to determine which shot was fired first because of the multiple variables involved — the position of the person shooting the gun and how the gun was angled.

Lewis stuck to that finding Friday.

“There’s an infinite number of scenarios in which you can pose the shooter,” Lewis said. “An honest and competent pathologist would not be able to tell you which order the shots were fired and the position of the person. It’s not scientifically possible.”

It’ll be interesting to see how much tolerance Mississippi judges, coroners, and prosecutors have for Hayne now that he’s working against them.

I’m also interested in what defense attorneys think about this. Is it ethical to use Hayne if you know he’s a fraud and an opinion for hire, even though Mississippi courts are still willing to certify him as an expert witness?

Me on Your Screen

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

. . . talking about Michael West and the Leigh Stubbs case on The Alyona Show.

New at HuffPost: Video Shows Controversial Forensic Specialist Michael West Fabricating Bite Marks

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

My article on the latest Michael West video is now up.

Video Shows Michael West Creating Bite Mark in the Leigh Stubbs Case

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

On the Bitemarks.org blog, forensic specialists David Averill and Mike Bowers have posted the video recording of Michael West’s “analysis” in the Leigh Stubbs case. In the video, West is examining Kim Williams, the woman Stubbs was convicted of assaulting. Watch closely at around the 50-second mark, as a bite mark mysteriously appears out of nowhere on Williams’ hip.

 

 

Averill and Bowers write:

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.

The jamming of the cast isn’t in the video, it’s actually from West’s court testimony.  He admits he does this. He claims it’s part of his method. And of course we already have video depicting that method. In the Jimmie Duncan case, West uses the same “technique” on the corpse of a child. In this case, he did it, without consent, on a woman who was comatose. (West, who is a dentist, also performed a vaginal examination on Williams while she was unconscious.)

Averill and Bowers have also posted the security video West claims to have “enhanced” using consumer software. As I reported last month, from the video below, West testified that . . .

. . . he was able to determine that the figures entering and leaving the frame in the video were wearing different clothing (one wearing shorts, the other wearing blue jeans) and were two different women, thus incriminating both Stubbs and Vance. Where the FBI could only determine that someone had removed an object — possibly a bag or suitcase — from the toolbox in the truck bed, West claimed repeatedly that he could make out hair, legs, and blue jeans, leading him to conclude that the object was clearly a body. “She takes a body out of this toolbox,” West conclusively told the jury. “That’s what I see.”

West also claimed he could actually read the body language of one figure in the footage, that she appeared “anxious,” and was exhibiting the sort of adrenaline-fueled “fight or flight” response one shows after committing a crime.

See for yourself:

 

 

I’ll have more in an upcoming piece for Huffington Post.

Morning Links

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Hayne, West Become Issue in Mississippi AG Race

Monday, August 29th, 2011

. . . that’s the topic of my latest piece for Huffington Post.

Jim Hood’s Top Secret Investigation of Michael West

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

On Monday, I noted that in response to some heat he’s taken over the Leigh Stubbs case, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood told a local TV station that his office is looking into 20 cases involving disgraced forensic specialist Michael West.

That was encouraging. But it also seemed strange, given that Hood’s office has consistently defended convictions won on West’s testimony, including in the Stubbs case. It also doesn’t jibe with Hood’s steadfast defense of Steven Hayne over the last few years (whom Hood often used when he was a DA). So yesterday I emailed Hood’s press office a request to speak with whoever is overseeing the West investigation. Or at least for a list of the cases they’re looking into. Or really for any additional information on the investigation.

Here was their reply:

We cannot release any of the information you are requesting at this time.

Hood hasn’t been particularly shy in the past about seeking publicity in the past, including putting out press releases about active criminal investigations. These West cases are at minimum several years old, and I’m pretty sure all of them are in post-conviction. If he is indeed looking into some of them them, I’m not sure what advantage there is to being secretive about it. Particularly if he’s going to announce the existence of the alleged investigation to a TV station in the first place.

I’ll have more on this in a follow-up piece for Huffington Post.

Mississippi TV Station Covers the Leigh Stubbs Case

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Good to see this case get some local coverage. Video includes grainy footage from the security camera that Michael West magically enhanced.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood’s defense of Stubbs’ prosecution in this video is so vague, it’s pretty much impossible to address. There was no evidence presented at trial other than West’s bite mark and “video enhancement” testimony that Leigh Stubbs assaulted Kim Williams. (Well, other than the weird prosecution theory that homosexuals are especially prone to biting one another.) I’m told that Hood also took a couple questions about the case last week, and referred to Stubbs’ “dope” convictions in the case as the other evidence of her guilt. So maybe that’s what he’s referring to in this video.

Problem is, not only does that have nothing to do with the alleged assault, there’s also no evidence Stubbs had much of a role in the theft of dope from Williams’ boyfriend. She passed a drug test shortly after her arrest. And witness accounts from the night in question also indicate that Stubbs was sober. There was evidence that Stubbs knew Vance and Williams had stolen the drugs and were ingesting them. And she obviously didn’t report them. But that isn’t the sort of crime for which one gets a 44-year prison sentence, particularly for a first offense.

At the end of this report, the anchor says Hood says his office is looking into at least 20 cases in which West has testified. That’s the first time I’ve heard of any Mississippi state official investigating old West/Hayne cases. So that’s encouraging. But I’ll withhold praise for Hood until/unless he can come up with a single case in which he determines that West’s testimony should invalidate a prosecution. So far, his office has either defended West’s testimony, or argued that defendants whose cases are in post-conviction status are procedurally barred from challenging West’s credibility. As for Hayne, Hood has not only steadfastly defended him, Hood led the fight to overturn Hayne’s termination so he could resume doing autopsies for Mississippi prosecutors.

My HuffPost article on the Stubbs case here.

Rick Perry and John Bradley

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Back in 2007, the Grits for Breakfast blog noted that Williamson County, Texas, District Attorney John Bradley gave some curious advice on a discussion board to another prosecutor. The other prosecutor was asking about how to construct a plea agreement in a way that would forfeit any future right to DNA testing. Bradley responded, “Innocence, though, has proven to trump most anything.” How unfortunate! He then added:

A better approach might be to get a written agreement that all the evidence can be destroyed after the conviction and sentence. Then, there is nothing to test or retest. Harris County regularly seeks such agreements.

Destroying evidence is an odd way to seek justice, especially given how many “slam dunk” cases and convictions based on false confessions have later been overturned after DNA testing.

I bring this up for a couple reasons. First, because Bradley is the DA involved in the pending DNA exoneration case I linked to this morning. And he’s accused of some pretty serious misconduct. From the article:

New DNA results, combined with evidence that was improperly withheld by Williamson County prosecutors for more than two decades, indicates that an Austin-area man has spent 24 years in jail for a murder he did not commit, a court filing alleged Wednesday.

Michael Morton, now 57, was convicted in the brutal beating death of his wife, Christine Morton, and sentenced to life in prison in 1987.

But a recent court-ordered DNA test, conducted on a blood-stained bandanna over the objections of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, points instead to an unnamed California felon as the killer, according to court briefs filed by the Innocence Project of New York.

The court filing urged a Williamson County district judge to remove Bradley from the case, saying he cannot be trusted to oversee a reinvestigation of the killing because he has shown “unprofessional” animosity toward Michael Morton and his lawyers.

What’s more, the motion alleges, Bradley worked to keep a key piece of evidence hidden from Morton’s lawyers — a transcript of a police interview that shows the Mortons’ 3-year-old son witnessed his mother’s murder and said the attacker was not his father.

The second reason I bring this up takes us back to Texas Gov. Rick Perry. If you’ll remember, just before the Texas Forensic Science Commission was set to open up an investigation into the Cameron Todd Willingham case, Perry abruptly replaced three of the commissioners with nominees who were more friendly to prosecutors, all of whom opposed reopening the case.

One of the replacements Perry nominated was . . . you guessed it . . . Williamson County, Texas, District Attorney John Bradley.

(Thanks to reader Kevin Spencer and commenter “thefncrow” for the leads.)

Morning Links

Monday, August 15th, 2011

More on Leigh Stubbs

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Leigh Stubbs’ brother-in-law left a few comments at Huffington Post that are worth reposting here:

I am Leigh Stubbs brother in law and I appreciate the author and the Huffington Post for featuring Leigh and the Innocence Project of Mississippi.

I would like to share a few comments about this article. Leigh was a college student when she approached her Mother and Father about her addiction. She sought help and completed the program at Caty Hill and she has been drug free since then. She was portrayed as a lesbian by Prosecutor Lampton to insight prejudice in the Lincoln County Mississipp­i Jury. Her sexuality is her business and not mine or Prosecutor Lamptons! The Circuit Judge Mike Smith served more as a prosecutor than a judge, telling Leigh’s father that he would sentence her to the maximum on every count BEFORE THE TRIAL BEGAN . . .

Leigh has spent the last 10 years teaching inmates in the GED program and working on various work details at Central Mississipp­i Correction­al Facility. She remains upbeat and looks forward to the day that she is home. Several people have commented about her smiling in her prisoner identification photo, Leigh smiled so her mother would enjoy her photo! . . .

It is hard to believe that Leigh’s been in prison for over 10 years. Only last month did the Mississippi Supreme Court recognize the merit in the Petition filed by the Mississippi Innocence Project on Leigh’s behalf. Thank you to former Supreme Court Justices Oliver Diaz and Chuck McRae, who showed moral courage in their dissent…saying the trial result would have been different had the judge not allowed West to testify as an expert in fields he was clearly not and expert in. We respect these men without reservatio­n and their words have sustained our families during difficult times, as have the prayers and support of our friends old and new.

More on Liegh Stubbs

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

A few items on the Leigh Stubbs case that didn’t make it into my article yesterday:

First, the state’s reply to the Mississippi Innocence Project’s post-conviction petition does argue a couple other reasons why West’s testimony shouldn’t be cause for a new trial other than the procedural issues. They’re both pretty lacking.

The first is that the state included the name of an FBI agent associated with the agency’s analysis of the videotape on the list of potential witnesses it gave to the defense. This, the state argues, was sufficient to fulfill its Brady requirement to disclose potentially exculpatory evidence. Providing the actual FBI report wasn’t necessary. If Stubbs’ attorney didn’t contact that agent and press him enough to learn about the report, that’s not the state’s fault.

There was no explanation as to why the FBI agent was included on the list. And if the attorney did know about the repot but didn’t follow up or bring it up when cross examining West, you’d think Stubbs would have a pretty darned good claim for ineffective assistance of counsel. Of course, the state argues against that, too.

Another of the state’s arguments is that West explained in his testimony that the images in the surveillance tape were “difficult to see” and that the purpose of his testimony was merely to “allow people to look at the video and come to their own conclusions.” The state writes, “In other words, he was trying to assist the jury,” instead of conclusively telling them what’s in the video.

Problem is, that line is lost in West’s BS about his NASA-like enhancement software, which is then followed by pages and pages of him explicitly telling the jury exactly what is in the video. Hayne and West do this often. They include a line or two of mild qualification in their testimony, then go on ad nauseum with baseless opinions and conclusions. It’s the latter that sticks with the jury. It’s the former that Mississippi appeals courts consistently cling to in refusing to throw out their testimony.

One other item of note. I mentioned in the article that Dunn Lampton was the U.S. Attorney who twice indicted then-sitting Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz. (Diaz was acquitted in both trials. He’s also now suing Lampton.) That experience altered the way Diaz viewed the criminal justice system. He became a strong defender of the rights of the accused, and a vocal opponent of the death penalty. It was Diaz who wrote the strongest opinion denouncing Hayne in the Tyler Edmunds case, and who in that opinion and others attacked Hayne and West, writing on a couple occasions that Hayne should be barred from testifying in Mississippi courtrooms. (In fact, if it weren’t for Diaz, Edmonds would likely still be in prison.)

The unfortunate coda: Diaz then lost his bid for reelection in 2009, in part because of Lampton’s indictments, and in part because a series of TV ads bought by a Virginia-based law-and-order activist group that denounced Diaz for his opinions in three cases. As I wrote at the time, two of the ad’s claims were misleading at best. The third was the case of Jeffrey Havard, a man currently on death row in Mississippi thanks primarily to Hayne’s testimony. His testimony in that case has since been criticized by more reputable forensic pathologists, but Havard is still on death row.