(Page 2 of 2)
Despite all of this, Mississippi's State Supreme Court affirmed Kennedy Brewer's conviction in 1997 in an opinion that validated Dr. Michael West and his status as a bite mark expert, even while acknowledging his one-year suspension from the American Board of Forensic Odontologists (still in effect at the time of the Brewer trial), and that his testimony was thrown out in the bologna sandwich case.
Nevertheless, the court found, Dr. West still possessed the "knowledge, skill, experience, training and education necessary to qualify as an expert in forensic odontology."
In 2002, Kennedy Brewer's lawyers were able to get the state to conduct DNA tests on the semen found inside Christine Jackson's body. At the time of his original trial, the semen sample was too small for DNA testing, and Brewer's lawyers had to fight to keep it from being destroyed. More advanced technology enabled the smaller samples to be tested, and in 2002, Mississippi's crime lab found the semen actually belonged to two separate men. But neither of them was Kennedy Brewer. Brewer's attorneys are now looking into a similar murder of another little girl at about the same time and in the same area that Christine Jackson was killed.
Based on this new evidence, Kennedy Brewer was awarded a new trial. But prosecutors still refuse to exonerate him or release him from prison. Instead, they're going to try him again. And they're going to use Dr. West again. West has said in interviews that he stands by his analysis, and that his bite mark expertise indicates Kennedy Brewer was still involved in Christine Jackson's death, even if his semen wasn't a match with that found at the crime scene (when reached at his private dental practice, West said he was "not interested" in an interview for this article).
There are other problems with Dr. West's examination of Jackson, including a video never shown to the original jury that the trial court judge noted showed West and his assistants acting "rather callous" during the examination, blaring "inappropriate" music during the procedure, and "carrying on conversations" unrelated to the examination.
The Kennedy Brewer case and Dr. Michael West are symptomatic of a larger flaw in our adversarial criminal justice system—the use of expert testimony to explain complicated scientific evidence. A charlatan like Dr. West, who has little respect from his peers, can with charisma, personality, and impressive-sounding credentials convince a jury to take his word over that of an expert far more careful and deliberate in his analysis. In some cases, indigent defendants can't afford to hire their own experts at all, leaving a state's expert like West as the only testimony on the available forensic evidence.
Forensic scandals have been troublingly common of late, with phony experts, fake results, and incompetent testing recently uncovered in Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Illinois, and Texas, to name just a few. Courts need to take a more active role in weeding out the Michael Wests of the world before they ever take the witness stand.
But professional organizations also need to be more vigilant about policing their own. Dr. West's peers should more vocally have questioned his methods long before he was permitted to testify more than 70 times in courts across the country. One would think they'd step up their standards to protect the integrity and reputation of their profession. But these continuing scandals suggest another, more urgent reason: to prevent bad science from sending innocent people to prison.
Radley Balko is a senior editor for reason. A version of this article originally appeared at FoxNews.com.