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Following the methodology that he has used in more than 100 other cases over the years, West confidently matches a dental mold and a photo of bite marks that have absolutely nothing to do with one another, decorating the fiction with the language of science. Though West is dead wrong, he sounds convincing, and it isn't difficult to imagine how he might prove persuasive to judges and juries.
In February, the National Academy of Sciences published a highly critical report about how forensic evidence is used and abused in the courtroom. The study was especially critical of bite-mark testimony, noting that it has contributed to a number of wrongful convictions over the years. The report concludes that there’s simply “no evidence of an existing scientific basis for identifying an individual to the exclusion of all others” using bite-mark analysis. Yet bite-mark testimony is still common, and there are still plenty of people in prison as a direct result.
It would be nice to see more "proficiency tests" like Plourd's with West, only not just from defense attorneys. More importantly, the criminal justice system needs to act swiftly when "experts" like West are shown to conduct bogus examinations.
West failed Plourd’s test in 2001. Yet as late as 2003, the Mississippi State Supreme Court still upheld West’s bite-mark testimony in a murder case. In rejecting an appeal by convicted murderer and death row inmate Eddie Lee Howard, the court wrote that “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” And as late as 2006, Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood relied on West’s bite-mark testimony to keep rape and murder convict Kennedy Brewer in prison. Though DNA evidence had shown back in 2003 that Brewer didn’t commit the rape, Allgood argued that because West matched bite marks he claimed to have found on the victim to Brewer’s teeth, Brewer must have bitten the victim while someone else raped her. (Other analysts say the marks weren't even bites.) Brewer remained in prison an additional five years, and was only released in 2008.
Plourd’s video sting ought to move public officials in Mississippi and Louisiana to thoroughly, if belatedly, investigate just how much damage this dentist has inflicted on the judicial systems of those states. There are still dozens of people in prison due in some part to "expert" tetimony that has been shown to be anything but.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.