I’ve been reporting on the crazy death investigation system in Mississippi for about ten years now. Just when I’ve thought things couldn’t get more surreal, I’m inevitably proven wrong. The latest example comes in a deposition last April of the disgraced “bite mark expert” Michael West.
But here’s a rough summary: In the early to mid-1990s, Michael West became a rock star in the world of forensics. West claimed to have developed techniques that he and only he could perform. According to West, those techniques could both identify bite marks on human skin that no other medical specialists could see, and then match those marks to one person, to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. West helped put lots of people in prison. He soon expanded his repertoire, and became an expert witness in a variety of forensic specialities, including a few he claimed to have invented. In addition to bite mark analysis, West also testified over the years as a a trace metals expert, wound pattern expert, gun shot residue expert, gunshot reconstruction expert, a crime scene investigator, blood spatter expert, “tool mark” expert, fingernail scratch expert, “liquid splash patterns” expert, and “video enhancement expert.” He once claimed he could match the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich found at the crime scene to the teeth of the primary suspect. Not DNA, mind you — the tooth marks in the bread. In another case, West even offered the jury his expertise about how lesbian couples resolve conflict. Though he primarily testified in Mississippi and Louisiana, prosecutors in at least eight other states retained him as an expert witness.
As early as 1994, there were questions about West’s credibility. He was the subject of several skeptical media profiles, including by Newsweek, the ABA Journal and “60 Minutes.”He has been investigated by and either resigned or was expelled from three separate professional organizations. Back in the early 2000s, one attorney tricked West into matching photos of bite marks on a murder victim to the dental plate of the attorney’s own private investigator.
By the late 1990s West was considered something of a quack even within the already dubious forensic speciality of bite mark analysis. Yet Mississippi (and Louisiana) prosecutors continued to use him, Mississippi and Louisiana trial courts kept allowing him to testify, and Mississippi and Louisiana appellate courts kept upholding the crazy things he’d claim on the witness stand.
In 2007, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were exonerated of the rape and murder of two little girls in Noxubee County, Mississippi. The first crime occurred in 1990. Local police suspected Brooks for the sexual assault and murder of a 3-year-old girl. West’s bite mark voodoo and testimony from (also controversial) medical examiner Steven Hayne were the main evidence against Brooks, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The next little girl was raped and killed less than two years later, just a few miles away. This time, police zeroed in on Brewer as the killer, and once again West’s bite mark matching was the main evidence against him. Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death. After spending a combined 30 years in prison, the two were released when DNA testing in the Brooks case pointed to a convicted sex offender named Justin Albert Johnson. He was arrested and admitted to both crimes. In fact, Johnson was briefly a suspect in the first crime, but West “excluded” him after finding that Johnson’s teeth failed to the match what West said were bite marks on the victim. (Indeed, it’s possible there were no bite marks at all — in his confession, Johnson made no mention of biting either little girl.)
That still wasn’t enough to convince Mississippi officials to take another look at all the other cases in which West had testified.
So let’s move on to the case at the heart last April’s crazy deposition. In 1994, Eddie Lee Howard was convicted for the rape and murder of an 84-year-old woman, mostly due to testimony from Hayne and West. Hayne didn’t initially claim to have seen any bite marks on the victim’s body. It was only several days later, when then-district attorney Forrest Allgood identified Howard as his chief suspect that Hayne recalled seeing marks that could be bites. (Allgood is also the prosecutor who convicted Brewer and Brooks.) The victim had by that time been buried. She was exhumed, and West then performed his magic, claiming to match the alleged bite marks to Howard.
Howard was convicted and sentenced to death. As late as 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court heard appeals on West’s testimony in Howard’s case. Even while acknowledging West’s severe credibility problem, his expulsion from various professional organization and his many other transgressions, the majority simply shrugged, writing, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” (Remarkably, West actually disclaimed bite mark analysis in 2012 — sort of — although he still defends his own work.)
After years of fighting, Howard’s attorneys were finally able to have DNA testing done on the knife allegedly used to kill the woman Howard was convicted of killing. The tests showed male DNA, but excluded Howard as the source. (A rape kit taken from the woman produced no usable DNA.) Last year, a state appeals court finally granted Howard’s request to reopen several issues in the case, including a challenge to West’s credibility. That set up the surreal deposition in April.
At that deposition, West was questioned by Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Ligation at the Innocence Project of New York. Also present was Tucker Carrington, Director of the Mississippi Innocence Project. (Disclosure: Carrington and I are currently co-writing a book about all of this.) Howard is also represented by Vanessa Potkin, Peter Neufeld, and Dana Delger, all of whom work for the Innocence Project in New York.
West frequently has been brash, prickly, and prone to fits of braggadocio on the witness stand. This time, he was also belligerent, profane, and combative. He was openly contemptuous of the entire process — which again was at heart about whether or not the state of Mississippi should put a man to death. The transcript records that he belched before one answer. On two occasions, as he grew increasingly annoyed at Fabricant’s questions, West offered hypotheticals that involved him killing Fabricant. You can read the entire transcript here. But I’d like to point out some highlights.
It began almost immediately, as West started the deposition with pouty, one-word answers. Here’s one such exchange:
Q. Dr. West, I see that you have no documents with you; is that right?A. Yes.Q. Did you look for any documents before you came here today?A. No.Q. Did you do anything to prepare for this deposition at all?A. No.[. . .]Q. And you realize that we’re here about Eddie Lee Howard’s convictions?A. Okay.Q. Well, I’m telling you that it’s about Eddie Lee Howard. Do you remember the Eddie Lee Howard case?A. No.[. . .]Q. Dr. West, I’m just going to ask you to flip through this or to take your time with it and just refresh your recollection about the testimony that you gave in this case.A: I was never more familiar with the case than when I testified on it.Q. So you feel —A. I feel comfortable with the testimony that I gave at that point in time, I still stand.Q. Okay. But you haven’t actually looked at that testimony, though, right?A. I stand on my testimony.Q. You stand on it, I understand. But I’m just asking you, did you actually look at it?A. No.Q. No. And have you looked at it since 1992?A. No.Q. You said earlier that you don’t remember what you testified to. But you’re saying that you stand by whatever it was?A. Yes.Q. But you don’t know exactly what it is?A. No.
It goes on like that. Fabricant later moved to questioning that West had previously undergone about the case of Leigh Stubbs, in which West testified as a bite mark expert, a video enhancement expert, and offered his opinions on lesbian violence to boot. It’s also a case in which a video recording of West’s procedure for analyzing bite marks strongly suggests he actually created the bite marks that he would later attribute to the defendant. (There are other similar videos where he does the same thing.) Because of West, Leigh Stubbs was convicted of assault and sentenced to 44 years in prison. Here’s Fabricant:
Q. Do you remember that deposition as well that Mr. Carrington —A. Was that the case of the two lesbians that bit the girl’s vagina lip off?Q. That sounds like we’re talking about the same case.Q. So Dr. West, I want to talk about, first, in 1992, you were still a coroner; is that right?A. Yes.Q. And —A. But not in this case.Q. Not in this case, right. Okay. So —A. I was also a Moose and a photographer.Q. Right. In your forensic —A. But it didn’t have anything to do with this case.
West’s memory of the Stubbs case is a revealing glimpse into his psyche. Stubbs was accused and convicted of biting a woman on the thigh, yet West remembered it as “the case of the two lesbians that bit the girl’s vagina lip off.” At the time, West was the elected coroner in his own county, but not in the county where the crime took place. When Fabricant inquired about that, West responded that his being a coroner was as relevant as his membership in his local Moose lodge.
Fabricant then asked West about his history as an expert witness.
Q: During this time, you testified previously that — in this case, actually, that you had done about 300 bite marks in cases that you, basically, you’ve analyzed, not that you’ve testified on, but that you had worked on, in 2000, about 300 bite mark cases. Does that sound accurate?A: If that’s what I testified to, that was my best recollection at the time.Q. Okay. And then you had testified in about 30 — and you actually testified in about 30 bite mark matching cases. Does that sound accurate?A. Yes.Q. It seems low to me. I don’t know, but that was —A. If that’s what I testified to, that’s — I was just most assured of these questions 20, 25
19 years ago.Q. Uh-huh (affirmative response). Anytime you want to remind yourself, you know, I mean, we’ve got the transcripts right here.A. I don’t want to remind myself.Q. Okay. Why is that?A. This isn’t my problem. It’s yours.Q. Well, there’s a man on death row in this case. You understand that, right?A. You’re telling me the State of Mississippi wants to execute this guy for killing this woman, and y’all want to cut him loose so he can kill some more. Y’all do what you want to. I’m out of it.Q. Right. That wasn’t really what I’m getting at, though.A. You do want him out, don’t you?Q. Well, we want to make sure that we find the truth. That’s what we’re looking for.A. Well, read the transcripts. There’s the truth right there.Q. Right. Well, there’s more evidence today than there was then.A. Why? Someone else is accused of this woman’s murder?Q. Let’s backtrack a little bit, right. Can we do that?A. Well, I mean, you said there was new evidence about this case.Q. Right. Yeah, there’s DNA evidence.A. And does it exclude your evidence?Q. Yes, it does.A. Then take it to court.Q. That’s why we’re here. This is going to be right before we’re going to court.A. I’m not an expert on DNA.Q. Right. But it was your testimony that condemned Mr. Howard, and that’s why we’re here to —A. No. It was the overall trial that condemned Mr. Howard. I was just part of it.
Note how flippant West is about all of this. Again, West’s testimony was used as key evidence linking an innocent man to a crime scene. He gave similar testimony in other cases that resulted in convictions of people we now know were not guilty. Yet he doesn’t show the slightest bit of regret or reverence for what has happened. Only defiance.
Later, Fabricant asks West about some of his colleagues in the world of forensic odontology. West has been at odds with the field since he resigned from the American Board of Forensic Pathology in 2006, when he was about to be ousted. When Fabricant asks West about prominent bite mark analyst Richard Souviron, West replies, “I know why his momma named him ‘Dick.'” When asked about other bite mark analysts, he uses terms like “idiot,” “whore,” and “fool.” He later expounded on Souviron in particular.
A. Dick’s an idiot.Q. Okay. Why do you say that?A. Because he’s an idiot.Q. Can you give me an example of —A. . . . He doesn’t look for the truth. He looks for ego flattering. I saw last year he was testifying and — not testifying. He was lecturing. And on his little bio there, he talked about being on “60 Minutes.” Well, he wasn’t the subject of that article. I was. He was just on “60 Minutes” bad-mouthing me. And I’m going, “Your claim to fame is bad-mouthing someone?” He doesn’t want to advance the truth. He wants to advance Dick Souviron. He’s an egomaniac.
Two comments on this: First, West is still immensely proud of his appearance on “60 Minutes,” even though the segment in question was quite critical of him. He still frequently mentions that appearance in depositions, along with his appearance on the “Phil Donahue Show” and in the pages of Playboy and Vanity Fair in the early 1990s. Oddly enough, that coverage of West was related to the Gainesville serial killer murders 1990. (While West did travel to Gainesville and received lots of press coverage for a what he claimed was a breakthrough new way to search for trace evidence using blue ultraviolet light, he ultimately found nothing of value, and played no role in catching the killer. The procedure, which he dubbed “The West Phenomenon,” has since been discredited.)
Second, it’s interesting that West here is describing Richard Souviron (who himself has implicated suspects who were later cleared) in the same way a lot of people describe Michael West.
Fabricant then asks West about his history with the American Board of Forensic Odontology, an advocacy group and professional organization for bite mark analysts. West was suspended from the group in 1994, then forced to resign in 2006. West attributed it all to a conspiracy theory.
A: I would say the height of my forensic career was my resignation letter to the board in 2006.Q. Yeah? That was what you felt best about?A. Yes.Q. Why is that?A. It was the — the purpose of the board was to advance the science, and I felt that my letter of resignation was the best thing I could do to advance the science.Q. That’s an intriguing response. Can you elaborate on that a little?A. I thought odontology was destroying itself.Q. In what way?A. Are you familiar with the term “agent provocateur”?Q. Sure.A. What’s your understanding of that term? I’ll tell you mine. An agent provocateur is someone who joins or enters into a group with the purpose of destroying that group.Q. Uh-huh (affirmative response).A. And I believe we had several members that were agent provocateurs to destroy the board.Q. Oh, yeah? Who do you think those people were?A. Dick Souviron, Greg Golden, Mike Collins, Iain Pretty, several others.Q. Okay. I don’t think Iain Pretty is an ABFO’er, but you thought he was a —A. I think he’s here to destroy the science, yes.
The deposition continued to devolve. Fabricant later asked West about several cases in which someone convicted based on bite mark testimony was later exonerated. In an exchange about a Massachusetts case involving bite mark analyst Lowell Levine, West just gets weird.
Q. While we’re looking for that, I want to give you this article about another Lowell Levine case and maybe you saw it.A: Let me state this right now. I do not think Lowell Levine killed this woman.Q. Killed someone? You think he —A. I don’t think he killed her. I think Eddie Lee Howard killed her. Lowell is innocent. He was in New York. But if you want to bring him in, go ahead.
In this exchange, Fabricant and an attorney from Hood’s office were arguing about a particular line of questioning. Fabricant argued that his questions were relevant to West’s opinion. That when West jumped in:
THE WITNESS: You know what’s relevant to my opinion?MR. FABRICANT: What’s that?THE WITNESS: I said if you know what’s relevant to my opinion, then let me go home and you answer the questions.MR. FABRICANT: That’s what I’m trying to do right now is —THE WITNESS: Can you read minds?MR. FABRICANT: No, I’m trying to —THE WITNESS: Try to think what I’m thinking now.MR. FABRICANT: You’re thinking that this guy is a jerk and I want to get out of here.THE WITNESS: No, no. It would take 5 years of improvement to get you to a jerk.MR. FABRICANT: Okay. Let me ask you about the — you testified previously that —THE WITNESS: Sociopath.MR. FABRICANT: Okay.THE WITNESS: Not jerk, but sociopath.
After calling Fabricant a sociopath, West continued to be openly hostile. Here’s another exchange:
Q. Right. And you testified in the Hayne deposition that you regret testifying to absolute certainty in the past?A. I don’t remember that. I mean, if I said it, you ain’t got to point it out. Just tell me, “You testified to it.”Q. That’s what you testified to.A. Save us some time, Christ.
Q. And you would not testify to Eddie Lee Howard’s matching that bite mark to the exclusion of anybody else on the planet because you don’t believe —A. No, I didn’t say that. I said I don’t believe in [sic] system. My opinion today would probably be a little different than it was back then, but I would have to go back and completely redo the whole thing. And I would cheerfully do that if you retain me and pay me.Q. Well, let’s talk about that. And today —A. You’re not paying — let’s make it sure. You’re not paying me for today, are you?Q. Would that make a difference in your testimony today?A. No. It would make a difference in my bank account. But are you paying me for my appearance here today?Q. I’m asking you whether or not your testimony depends on my paying you for it, or are we just going to talk about the truth here today?A. No. The truth is I’m not being paid for my services.Q. Right.A. You are. You’re getting paid, aren’t you? Are you getting paid? Well, what the hell are you doing here? You don’t know either. [To the stenographer:] Honey, you’re getting paid, aren’t you? I’m only one in this room not getting paid. With that note, I’m going to take a break and go to the bathroom.
A man’s life is at stake, yet West is angry that he isn’t being paid to appear at a deposition about his methods. This next exchange offers yet more petulance, and provides a great example of West’s tendency to browbeat his questioner when flustered.
Q. I know that you know Vincent Di Maio, right?A. Yes.Q. And you testified before in the Hayne deposition that he was at one time also a believer in bite mark analysis. You made reference to his book?A. I don’t remember.Q. Let me see where that is.A. Do you understand the difference between “I stand by what I testified” and “I don’t remember”?Q. Yes.A. Do you know the difference between those two statements?Q. The reason — I do. I’m sorry.A. Well, then why are you beating me to death with this? I told you if it’s in the transcript, I stand by it. If I remembered it — I don’t remember what the f**k I had for breakfast two years ago, but I do believe I ate eggs.Q. Okay. The reason that it’s important — shall I explain it to you?A. Yeah.Q. Okay — is that if you just say that I can’t remember, then I can’t ask you a question about what you said.A. Okay. Well, I don’t remember.Q. Right.A. You shouldn’t have waited 20-something years.Q. Right. I didn’t have anything to do with that.A. Then you should have got on board early.Q. You’re right.A. Where the hell were you when we were looking at this dead woman’s body?Q. Right.A. Sitting around jerking off in New York? We were trying to find the truth.Q. Yeah, I was in high school.A. And then go come — well, you want ought to go your ass back. I’m tired of you goddamn picking on me.Q. Well, if we could keep going straight forward, you’ll be out of here sooner than later. So I’m going to go back to what you said before —A. Go ahead.Q. — and remind you —A. Get it over with. I’m tired of this crap. I don’t care if they put him to death. I don’t care if you put a statue up to him. I’m out of this. Let me go. Y’all do whatever the hell you want to. I’m not in it anymore.Q. Unfortunately, some of the case —A. Cut him loose then.Q. Right.A. If I have to do time for this man to be punished for his crime, I say cut him loose. I’m tired of being punished.Q. Right. Did you know that the only physical evidence in this case is the bite mark omparison?A. It might be. I don’t know.Q. And you wouldn’t want to bet a man’s life on bite mark comparison evidence, right?A. There’s innocent people that go to jail very day and guilty guys that walk every day. I can’t solve the problem. I can’t fix the system. The whole system is broke.Q. And you wouldn’t want to bet a man’s life on bite mark comparison?A. I don’t bet on mans’ lives.Q. Right. I’m saying, you wouldn’t want to?A. I don’t bet on mans’ lives.Q. Right. Because you say that —A. I’m not an executioner. I’m a part. The people you’re mad at is the jury. Go after the jury.
Two men spent nearly 20 years in prison because of West. One was nearly executed. Others still wait on death row. But West wants us to know the real victim in all of this is Michael West. And we haven’t even reached the best parts yet. Here, he lobs another childish insult at Fabricant:
Q. The only small point that I was trying to make is that at the second trial when you testified, you didn’t use “indeed, without a doubt,” you used what was, at that time, the approved terminology?A. Okay.Q. Is that fair?A. Okay.Q. When you say “okay,” I have trouble understanding what you mean by that.A. Okay. I agree. Thank you, Ass-wipe.
In another exchange, West managed to both insult Fabricant and attest to his own glory. After objecting to Fabricant referring to some of his cases as “controversial,” West interjected, “They’re all controversial . . .I’ve always been aware that there’s usually a young lady sitting next to me writing everything down that I say. And a hundred years from now, there will be idiots like you two sitting down discussing what I said today.”
Fabricant also asked West about Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. To this day, West still insists both men are guilty. Forget the DNA tests or that another man has confessed to both crimes. West still maintains that he only testified that Brooks and Brewer bit their respective victims. If someone else did the actually raping and killing of the girls, West argues, that isn’t on him. They’re still guilty. They must have held the girls down and bit them while Johnson raped and killed them. (In his 2007 confession, Justin Albert Johnson said he committed both assaults and murders alone.) In the April deposition, West slandered Brooks yet again.
WEST: I’ve often speculated if Mr. Brooks didn’t supply this child for sex with Mr. Johnson in trade for money or drugs. How — you know, how is it that he had this child after midnight, and the next time we find her she’s dead and she’s got Mr. Johnson’s DNA in her vagina, not on the bite marks, but on her vagina? And I’m going, “You know, I think Levon held this little girl while he raped her.”Q. Right. But you weren’t there, right?A. But his semen was in her vagina, and Levon Brooks’ teeth were on her body.Q. Right.A. So that was two people assaulting this girl.Q. And you did that match using two front teeth, right?A. Those were — I think that was the tooth that had the unique wear and tear that showed up in the bite mark very, very well —
At this point, even the state of Mississippi has acknowledged the innocence of Brooks and Brewer. Both men have been formally exonerated and compensated under the state’s wrongful conviction law. Only West still clings to their guilt.
In both cases, West claimed to match the men to bite marks using only their upper teeth. Since we usually bite with bot upper and lower teeth, that always seemed odd and suspicious. Fabricant asked West about that at the deposition, and got another interesting response.
“That’s funny. Y’all like to c– on that,” West said, using a vulgar term for ejaculate.
He then explained, “In ’86, we did a bite mark survey in the ABFO in Vegas. We had stone models on vice grips. And I remember we pulled Dick Souviron’s belly and bit him, and only one arch showed, a partial bite mark arch. It happens. You don’t always get both teeth.” In other words, West is saying his testimony was sound because at a conference 30 years ago, he and some fellow bite mark analysts used vice clamps to “bite” one of their colleagues on the belly.
Here’s another exchange involving Fabricant, the prosecutor from the Attorney General’s Office, and West:
MR. FABRICANT: So let’s just move on. I’m staying relevant here, and I’m staying in the transcript, and I’m trying to save us all some time.MR. WHITE: Well, hurry up.MR. FABRICANT: This is a death penalty case. Are you aware of that?MR. WHITE: I’ve been doing death penalty cases for 40 years.MR. FABRICANT: Well, then let’s not be in a big hurry.MR. WHITE: Well, you are.THE WITNESS: Twenty years and they ain’t executed him? Come on, Christ. The State don’t need to execute people if it takes them 20 years to make a decision.BY MR. FABRICANT:Q. This case, the Eddie Lee Howard case —A. We’ve got to get him out. He needs to kill some more women.
A few moments later, West cracks a joke:
Q. Right. And you were asked to bring documents to this deposition.A. Couldn’t find them.Q. Did you look?A. Yeah.Q. Where did you look?A. Dresser.Q. In your dresser?A. (Witness nods head affirmatively.)Q. You keep records in your dresser too?A. Sometimes, yeah.Q. What kind of records do you have in your dresser?A. Beetles [sic], Rolling Stones.
Minutes later, in another display of humor, West uses the accusation that he has actually created bite marks on victims to riff on Chris Fabricant’s name:
Q. Unlike in this case it was a dead person and they used UV light on a dead person?A. Living is different from dead. I’ll agree with you on that.Q. Right. And the UV light that you talked about works on living people, not on dead ones?A. No. I believe it works on dead ones too.Q. Not according to the literature, and you don’t have anything to cite to.A. If you disagree with it, disagree with it.Q. Well, because I think you invented it. I think you invented this bite mark on this body. I don’t think you saw —A. My name ain’t “fabrication.” Yours is.
Quite the wit, that Michael West.
There’s lots more like this. But here’s the start of the exchange that ends the deposition:
Q. All right. Dr. West, do you have any 25 questions for me?A. How do you sleep at night?Q. I sleep well.A. You’re a sociopath. It’s amazing to me they don’t care what their clients do. They will do anything to get them off, no matter how heinous murdering their clients are.
Just to be clear, it is West here who is calling someone else a sociopath. He goes on:
Q. Let me follow up on that, Dr. West.A. Go ahead.Q. “Sociopath,” that’s a specific definition. Do you know what a sociopath is?A. Yeah.Q. What is it?A. To me, that’s someone who is out of touch with reality and has no empathy for the victims. They’re only — they’re driven by their own self-needs.Q. And you and I just met today, right?A. Well, yeah.Q. So that’s your — and you called me that, I think, the moment we sat down. So that’s your — how did you come to that conclusion?A. You’re sitting next to a sociopath. You work for Innocence Project. Every attorney I’ve met with the Innocence Project lies, cheats, steals and tries to obfuscate the evidence in front of the court. I have no respect for y’all.Q. I see. And so that makes me a sociopath?A. No. That makes you an ass-wipe. You make yourself a sociopath.MR. FABRICANT: Well, I look forward to seeing you again, Dr. West.THE WITNESS: Well, don’t be f—— off. Are we dismissed?MR. FABRICANT: Yep.THE WITNESS: Thanks.
It’s worth noting that during this deposition, West also directly contradicted his trial testimony in the Howard case. (The specifics would require too much background for this already-long post.)
The April deposition was followed by a court hearing in May. The trial court judge has yet to rule on whether West’s testimony should have been admitted at trial. He could uphold West’s testimony, bar it and grant Howard a new trial without West, or — less likely — dismiss the charges against Howard entirely.
In a post tomorrow, I’ll look at the role of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood plays in all of this. It is Hood’s office that continues to defend this conviction — as well as the convictions in countless other cases involving Hayne, West, or both. Hood’s actions after this deposition in particular are pretty amazing.