(Page 3 of 3)
West himself never testified at Jimmie Duncan's trial. Between his examination of Oliveaux in 1993 and Duncan's trial in 1998, the bite-mark analyst came under fire for his working methods and credulity-stretching testimony. In 1994, an ethics committee from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences unanimously recommended that West be expelled from the organization. West resigned instead. His work was criticized in such national media outlets as Newsweek, the ABA Journal, and National Law Journal. By 1998, Duncan's prosecutors recognized the baggage West carried and dropped him from the case. Still, West continued to both work with Hayne and testify in Mississippi until well into the 2000s.
Duncan's prosecutors then turned to Dr. Neal Reisner, a forensic odontolgist from Scarsdale, New York. Relying only on photos West took after the examination depicted in the video, Reisner testified that the marks on Oliveaux's cheek were indeed bite marks, and that "to a reasonable degree of medical certainty," he could determine that they came from Jimmie Duncan.
The video above was never shown at Jimmie Duncan's trial. It wasn't even shown to the expert witnesses from either side. Trial Judge Charles Joiner did view the tape, and inexplicably concluded that it contained "no exculpatory evidence favorable to the defendant," a conclusion that the forensics specialists Reason spoke with strongly dispute.
Prosecutors initially refused to turn the video over to Duncan's attorneys. In one brief filed during pre-trial motions in 1995, they noted the controversy surrounding West, and argued that "the defense is somehow hoping to drag Dr. West into this case in order to create ancillary issues for the jury." A year later, they relented and finally turned over the tape. For whatever reason, Duncan's trial attorneys never used the video; they never even showed it to their own expert, forensic odontologist Richard Souviron. (Duncan's trial attorneys declined to speak with Reason, because his case is still active.)
Souviron recently had the opportunity to view the video for the first time. In a new affidavit submitted to Duncan's post-conviction attorneys, Souviron describes the video as showing "Dr. West, violently and repeatedly, forcing a mold of Jimmie Duncan's teeth into Ms. Oliveaux's right cheek. In doing so, Dr. West creates a mark that was not previously present. Dr. West's behavior and methods are absolutely not supported by any scientific standards or protocol." Souviron added in the affidavit that hospital photographs show that "none of the marks were present when Ms. Oliveaux was at the hospital," and that the abrasions that Reisner testified about for the prosecution "were created by the flagrant misconduct of Dr. Michael West."
The Hayne-West Legacy
West was still testifying in Mississippi courtrooms until at least the year 2000, long after he'd resigned from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. As late as 2007, prosecutors were still relying primarily on West's testimony to keep Kennedy Brewer in prison. And despite the Brooks and Brewer exonerations, the state has refused to conduct a review of the hundreds of cases in which West has testified.
Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi chapter of the Innocence Project, argues that West's influence may run even deeper. "You also have to consider all the cases where someone may have falsely confessed, or accepted plea bargain for a crime they didn't commit after being presented with West's findings. Those cases aren't going to show up in legal searches," he says. "West was also widely used by the state's social services agencies. His testimony has helped the state take who knows how many children away from their parents."
The story with Hayne is even grimmer. In August of last year, Mississippi announced that it finally would no longer include Hayne on its list of medical examiners cleared to perform criminal autopsies. The move effectively ended Hayne's reign as Mississippi's de facto medical examiner.
But as with West, Mississippi officials still refuse to acknowledge that there was ever a significant problem with Hayne, and have no intention of investigating just how much damage he may have done to the state's criminal justice system. Given that Hayne performed approximately 80 percent to 90 percent of the state's autopsies for close to 20 years, the number of cases in which he has testified is likely in the tens of thousands. Worse yet, even in terminating Hayne, the state agreed to allow him to complete a backlog of approximately 600 autopsies. As of this article's posting, he's still testifying in Mississippi courts.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.