(Editor's Note: Reason is making several source documents from this story available for download, including trial testimony, an autopsy report, and expert affidavits. Download a PDF of the packet here. Packet is 230 pages, 21.6mb.)
The nude, lifeless body of 23-month-old Haley Oliveaux lies awkwardly across a metal autopsy table in a Mississippi morgue. A red block propped under the little girl’s shoulders elevates her chest, causing her head to tilt backward and her arms to spill off to the side. The toddler’s head hangs at an angle that causes her fine blonde hair to fall away from her face, exposing her right cheek, the right side of her forehead, and her hairline. There is light bruising around her ear and right eye, but there are no visible scrapes, cuts, or abrasions on the right side of her face. Most notably, the skin of her right cheek is smooth and unblemished. In a heavy drawl, Michael West, a dentist employed by prosecutors and coroners to conduct post-mortem examinations, announces the date and time: December 18, 1993, 9:35 p.m.
Oliveaux drowned in a bathtub that morning in West Monroe, Louisiana, while in the care of her mother’s boyfriend, Jimmie Duncan. Duncan said he was washing dishes at the time. In an unusual decision, her body was transported 120 miles east to Rankin County, Mississippi, for examination. Although the state of Louisiana had its own medical examiners, the district attorney and police chief of West Monroe wanted the autopsy to be performed by Steven Hayne, a controversial physician who was able to dominate Mississippi’s autopsy referrals, critics say, by drawing conclusions prosecutors wanted to hear. Duncan already faced charges of negligent homicide for leaving the girl alone in the tub. In Hayne’s initial examination he claimed to find bite marks that hospital doctors failed to notice. He then called for further analysis from West, his frequent collaborator.
West, a dentist from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is a specialist in bite mark evidence. During the previous three years, he and Hayne had helped produce murder convictions in two strikingly similar cases, finding previously undetected bite marks on dead little girls and linking them back to the boyfriends of the girls’ mothers. No one knew at the time that the convicted killers—one of whom, Kennedy Brewer, lived on death row for 14 years—would be exonerated and freed in 2008 when DNA tests showed a third man was responsible for both deaths. Nor could many have known at the time that West and Hayne eventually would be discredited by their own professions, and barred from conducting new examinations in their home state.
But the Oliveaux case continues to have repercussions today because the research and testimony West and Hayne produced helped put yet another man on death row, where he remains to this day. West and Hayne would go on to testify in thousands more cases. The states where they testified most often—Louisiana, and particularly Mississippi—still haven’t fully acknowledged the extent of the damage the two men have done to their respective criminal justice systems. The decades-long legislative tilt in favor of prosecutors has made it all too easy for bad actors to do great harm.
West examined Oliveaux twice, on December 18 and 19, 1993. As was routine with Hayne and West, they shot video of the procedure. What’s not routine is that the video is seeing the light of day, after being obtained by reason. (You can view a portion of the video at reason.com/westvideo.)
For the first five minutes, West examines Oliveaux’s body, noting bruises, signs of livor mortis (the pooling of blood after death), abrasions, and contusions. During this time, West makes no mention of any scrapes or abrasions on Oliveaux’s cheek, nor are any apparent on the tape.
At 4:57, there’s a break in the video, marking the lapse between the two exams. At that point the camera returns to Oliveaux’s face. Strikingly, where just moments before the video showed no blemishes at all, there’s now a conspicuous bright red abrasion to the right of Oliveaux’s mouth.
West’s hand then enters the frame, holding a plaster dental mold taken earlier that day from Jimmie Duncan. Using the replica of Duncan’s teeth as a weapon, West repeatedly presses and jams the front bite plate directly into Oliveaux’s cheek. Over two minutes, he does this 17 times. At 6:57, he starts dragging Duncan’s mold across Oliveaux’s face, beginning near her lips, then scraping the plaster teeth down her face to her jaw. He does this for another minute. West next moves to Oliveaux’s elbow and uses the cast to impress Duncan’s dentition onto an old bruise hospital records show she suffered weeks before her death.
At the 9:32 mark, West asks someone in the room to turn out the lights. A fluorescent black light flicks on. West is now employing a much-ridiculed technique he invented for identifying bite marks, which he modestly calls the “West Phenomenon.” He claims that by using a black light and yellow goggles, he can find bite marks, knife serrations, and other tears and abrasions to the skin that no other expert can see. With the lights out, West continues to jam the plaster cast into the girl’s cheek, elbow, and arm. Over the course of the 24-minute video, West pushes the cast of Duncan’s teeth into the girl’s body at least 50 times.
‘He’s Tampering With the Evidence. It’s Criminal.’ “This is the best documentation I’ve ever seen of Dr. West’s junk bite-mark comparisons,” says Michael Bowers, a deputy medical examiner for Ventura County, California, after viewing the video. A past chairman of the American Board of Forensic Odontology’s Exam and Credentialing Committee, Bowers also worked with the Innocence Project to help free Kennedy Brewer.
How did abrasions that were not apparent on December 18 suddenly appear bright red the following day? “Dr. West created them,” Bowers says. “It was intentional. He’s creating artificial abrasions in that video, and he’s tampering with the evidence. It’s criminal, regardless of what excuse he may come up with about his methods.…You never jam a plaster cast into a possible bite mark like that. It distorts the evidence. You take a photograph, or if there are indentations, you take an impression. But you don’t jam plaster teeth into them.” After watching the video, Bowers offered to submit an affidavit for Jimmie Duncan’s defense.
David Averill, a former president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, concurred. “The video is troubling,” Averill says. “I don’t know how you can explain where those marks come from. And there’s just no justification for him to push the cast into the skin like that. That isn’t an acceptable way to perform a bite mark analysis.”
San Diego forensic pathologist Harry Bonnell, who was hired by Duncan’s post-conviction attorneys last summer, also concludes that West broke the law. Bonnell formerly served on the ethics committee of the National Association of Medical Examiners; he has worked for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, and he now sits on the board of trustees for the advocacy group Parents of Murdered Children. He has previously described Hayne’s work on homicide cases as “pathetic,” “near-total speculation,” and “border[ing]…on criminal negligence.”
By email, Bonnell says: “If what I am seeing on the video is accurate, someone is using the mold of Duncan’s teeth to create an apparent bite mark; this, in my mind, is criminal tampering with evidence.” In his affidavit for Duncan’s defense, Bonnell writes, “The injury to the cheek of Haley Oliveaux is not seen in hospital photos…and was generated by using a mold of Duncan’s teeth to create a bite mark.” Of the alleged mark on Oliveaux’s elbow, Bonnell writes that it “does not appear to be acute or occurring at the time of death; it appears older…and is certainly not a bite mark.”
Richard Souviron, a bite mark examiner in Miami and a founding member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, testified for Duncan’s defense at trial. Inexplicably, Duncan’s trial attorneys, who had access to the video, never showed it to him. After viewing the video last year, Souviron filed a new affidavit that describes “Dr. West, violently and repeatedly, forcing a mold of Jimmie Duncan’s teeth into Ms. Oliveaux’s right cheek.” In doing so, Souviron continues, “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 adds that the abrasions could not have been created by Jimmie Duncan but rather “were created by the flagrant misconduct of Dr. Michael West.”
Yet the video was never shown at trial. And the allegedly manufactured bite marks proved to be a critical piece of evidence in Duncan’s 1998 conviction on charges of rape and murder. He has been on death row for 10 years, awaiting lethal injection, in part because of evidence that several prominent forensic specialists say was fabricated.
‘The Manifestations of a Bite Mark’