A Black man in Mississippi who spent over 25 years on death row has been freed after key evidence used in his conviction was discredited.
According to the Associated Press, the now 67-year-old Eddie Lee Howard was convicted of capital murder multiple times in the 1992 stabbing death of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp. District Attorney Scott Colom has said that the murder charge against Howard was dropped after bite-mark testimony that was central to Howard’s conviction was discredited. Additionally, tests run on a knife and various other items found at the crime scene found no evidence of Howard’s DNA. Colom told AP that there simply wasn’t enough evidence to convict Howard “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“My ethical and legal responsibility requires that I dismiss the case,” he added.
Howard was initially convicted in 1994, with his conviction originally overturned in 1997. Three years later though, testimony from Dr. Michael West would result in him being convicted once again. West testified that bite marks found on Kemp’s neck and arm were “consistent with” Howard’s teeth and that one of the bite marks was “identical” to Howard’s dental impressions.
Today I learned I could face the death sentence because my teeth weren’t right. You just have to love how completely not arbitrary the American justice system is.
West testified that he was a member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology and that he had followed the group’s guidelines as he compared the marks on Kemp’s body to Howard’s dental impressions that were made as part of the case.
Since Howard’s trial, the board has revised those guidelines to prohibit such testimony, reflecting a “new scientific understanding that an individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite-mark comparison,” Mississippi justices wrote in August.
West said in a 2012 deposition that he no longer believed in bite-mark evidence and it should not be used in court cases.
As a result of Howard’s conviction stemming from discredited testimony, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 27 that Howard deserved a new trial. Howard was removed from death row last month as a result of that ruling.
The Mississippi Innocence Project represented Howard in his case and issued a news release regarding the conviction being overturned. “The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken a powerful stance in rejecting junk science as the basis on which to put a man to death,” M. Chris Fabricant, one of Howard’s attorneys, said in the release.
Howard released a statement thanking everyone who helped him to realize his “dream of freedom.”
“I thank you with all my heart, because without your hard work on my behalf, I would still be confined in that terrible place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, waiting to be executed,” he said.