Civil Liberties

More on Michael West's Response


Last Thursday, we posted my report about a video of a bite mark examination in Louisiana that showed possible criminal evidence tampering by Mississippi dentist and self-proclaimed bite mark expert Dr. Michael West. The evidence was used to help convict Jimmie Duncan of raping and murdering 23-month-old Haley Oliveaux. West responded a few days later in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. A few comments on his response:

"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've already put up a post addressing West's comment about "They can't stand the evidence."

I don't know what West means by "I've exonerated three or four times as many people as I've convicted." Certainly he doesn't mean he testifies for the defense more than he testified for prosecutors. I consulted with some defense attorneys in Mississippi with knowledge of West's history, and they couldn't think of a single time he has testified for the defense. That isn't to say it's never happened. But it is to say it wasn't that often, and certainly not three or four more times than he has testified for prosecutors.

One defense attorney theorized that West is referring here to the fact that in some of these cases, police or prosecutors will bring him four or five dental molds, and from these he'll pick one that matches whatever bite mark he has allegedly found. In his mind, this may mean he has "exonerated" the others. It's too bad the reporter didn't ask him to elaborate (West won't talk to me at all). But he clearly isn't using the word "exonerate" in the way it's commonly understood.

West responded that the accusations he made up or falsified evidence "is a damn lie."

"You can't make an inflammatory response on a dead person," he said.

I asked Michael Bowers about this. Bowers is the dentist I first showed the video to, and who was so incensed by what he saw that he offered to submit an affidavit for Jimmie Duncan's defense. Bowers is a widely respected forensic odontologist. He is dismissive of bite mark analysis as a means of positively identifying someone because, he says, that sort of analysis has no basis in science science (a position emphatically hammered home by the National Academy of Sciences report a couple of weeks ago).

In any case, Bowers says West is correct on the obvious point that you can't induce an inflammation in a dead person. But Bowers says that what West is doing in the video isn't causing an inflammation, but scraping away layers of skin with the mold of Duncan's teeth. Likewise, the abrasion that appears after a break in the video that wasn't there as the video opens is an abrasion caused by some sort of trauma to the cheek. It is not an inflammation.

More from West:

He defended pressing the mold against Haley's cheek, saying he was following protocol Bowers laid out in his manual that says bite-mark comparisons can be made from "working study model to impression of wound."

I asked Bowers about this statement, too. Bowers says West is lying. Bowers says that this is the technique West is referring to:

1. Photograph the injury using a ruler or scale.
2. Use dental impression material to make a mold of the skin.
3. Take this impression and pour dental plaster into it. This makes a model of the skin.
4. Use the suspect's dental models to place onto the MODEL of the skin.
In the video, West does none of this. Instead, he takes a cast of the defendant's teeth, and jams it directly into Haley Oliveaux's skin more than 50 times. The technique Bowers describes and what West does in the video aren't remotely similar. This isn't a merely a case an expert using unconventional methods. West is altering evidence.
West said he doesn't understand why he's drawing criticism when another bite-mark expert testified for the prosecution at the capital murder trial of Jimmie Duncan, now on death row.

Of course that expert, Dr. Neal Riesner, performed his analysis based on photos of the bite marks West took after he had repeatedly jammed Jimmie Duncan's dental mold into Haley Oliveaux's body. Even here, Bowers and the NAS study would say Riesner was out of bounds. There's simply no science to back up the notion that you can affirmatively match bite marks left on skin to a single individual. And to do so from photos of bite marks left on skin is even more problematic.