Michael West Responds


Disgraced bite mark witness Michael West angrily responded yesterday to charges first reported here at Reason that he tampered with evidence by pushing a dental mold of a suspect's teeth into the corpse of 23-month-old Haley Oliveaux. I'll address the rest of West's defense in a subsequent post. For now, I'd like to focus on this passage, quoting West.

"I've exonerated three or four times as many people as I've convicted," he said. "I'm a little old dentist from Hattiesburg, and I've got the top lawyers in the country coming after me. The New York Times wrote an editorial on me. Why? They can't stand the evidence."

I'm not sure what "They can't stand the evidence" means. But there's a reason lawyers and experts across the country are coming after him. In addition to West's key role in the Oliveaux case and in the wrongful Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks convictions—all discussed in my article last week—here's a look at the other "evidence" of West's expertise over the years:

• In the 1995 Louisiana case State v. Van Winkle, West testified that marks on a dead boy's stomach were consistent with the soles of a pair of hiking boots owned by his mother. The mother was convicted of manslaughter, but the conviction was later overturned, in part due to West's testimony.

• In 1992, West matched a bite mark on an elderly rape victim to a Mississippi man named Johnny Bourn. Bourn was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months due to West's testimony, even though hair and fingerprint evidence pointed to someone else. Bourn was freed when DNA testing on fingernail scrapings taken from the victim conclusively excluded him as the assailant.

• In the case of Eddie Lee Howard (which I blogged about here), a dissenting opinion from the Mississippi Supreme Court noted that at the time of Howard's first trial in 1994, West had testified in "forty-one murder trials; thirty-two times as a wound pattern expert; one time as a trace metal expert; three times as an expert regarding gun shot residue; three times as an expert in gunshot reconstruction; three times as a death investigator expert; two times as a County Coroner; six times in child abuse trials; three times as a crime scene investigator; and one time as a blood splatter expert. He also asserts that he has made 600 dental I.D's and 300 bite mark I.D.'s. Of the 100 board certified forensic odontologists in the United States, about 90% of them have testified for the opposite side when Dr. West is called as an expert witness."

• In the 2000 Mississippi case of Leigh Stubbs and Tammy Vance, two women accused of various drug and assault charges, West expanded his expertise to include video enhancement, and claimed he could match the latches on a toolbox to the wounds on the alleged assault victim. 

• In the 1997 case Banks v. Mississippi, West claimed to have matched the bites in a half-eaten bologna sandwich left at the crime scene to the defendant's dentition. West then destroyed the sandwich before the defense could test it. The defendant was convicted. That conviction was later overturned, and West's testimony was tossed.

• In the 1990 Mississippi case State v. Maxwell, West definitively matched the serrations on a butcher knife to stab wounds on three elderly victims, and also with a slash on a door. He also claimed he could trace slight indentations on the suspect's palm to rivets on the knife's handle. When West's lab photos of the alleged indentations came back overexposed, he merely photocopied the suspect's hand, then drew the indentations in. He was still allowed to testify. West's testimony is all that linked the defendant Larry Maxwell to the crime scene. Maxwell was convicted. Citing West's improbably testimony, a court later overturned Maxwell's conviction. The state later dropped the charges, and Maxwell was freed.

• In State v. Oppie, another Mississippi case, West claimed he could definitively match scratches on a murder victim to the suspect's fingernails. Not by DNA, but merely by the appearance of the scratches and the structure of the suspect's fingernails.

• In a 1993 Ohio case, West was able to get himself certified as an expert on liquid splash patterns. A 17-year-old was charged with manslaughter for deliberately pouring bleach onto his disabled sister. West testified that the splash and burn patterns from the bleach showed the bleach had been poured intentionally, not spilled accidentally.

• In the mid-1990s, West claimed to have found a bite mark on the shoulder of a woman whose body was exhumed after being buried for 14 months. No other doctor had seen the mark. Unfortunately, West says he put the skin sample in a "preservative" that destroyed the mark he claimed to have found. He was allowed to testify anyway. Relying on West's memory and West's word, jurors convicted a Louisiana oyster fisher named Anthony Keko of killing his wife. Keko served 2.5 years in prison before the state dropped all charges against him, and set him free.

(Note: This list of cases are summarized from this 1996 article in the ABA Journal, this 2007 paper by Paul Giannelli and Kevin McMunigal, and my own research and reporting.)

These are merely the cases where West gave testimony that was outrageous enough to have been later overturned or cited by his critics. There are countless other cases where he has given testimony that's plausible, but given his obvious credibility problems, should never have been allowed anywhere near a courtroom. Yet judges kept allowing him to take the stand. The "little old dentist from Hattiesburg" has done quite a bit of damage.