- Associated Press - Thursday, May 5, 2016

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) - A death row inmate is challenging bite mark evidence used to convict him of a 1992 slaying.

The hearing is ongoing this week after the Mississippi Supreme Court last year instructed a lower court to determine if Howard’s arguments justify a new trial.

Howard, now 62, was convicted and sentenced to death in the slaying of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp of Columbus. Evidence against him included bite marks on her body, according to the testimony of forensic odontologist Michael West of Hattiesburg. West testified the bite marks left on Kemp’s body matched dental impressions taken from Howard, but his testimony in cases statewide has come under heavy criticism.

The Commercial Dispatch (http://bit.ly/1QT3yKY) reports that Iain Pretty, a professor of dentistry from the University of Manchester in England, testified Wednesday that bite marks are no longer seen as a valid way to identify someone.

Pretty referenced a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, which found that bite marks could not be used to reliably identify an individual.

“They said there was nothing in the literature that supports the taking of a human bite mark in the skin and pairing it and linking it to an individual,” Pretty said.

Pretty said he was familiar with West’s work, calling him “one of the great advocates” for bite marks at the time. He said West was seen as a pioneer in the field. But, Pretty said, as scientific evidence turned against bite marks - and as more and more wrongful convictions emerged from cases built on bite mark evidence — West’s reputation began to fall.

In June, the Clarion Ledger reported that West, during a 2012 deposition, said that the practice isn’t reliable.

Jason Davis, director of criminal appeals for the Mississippi Attorney General’s office, asked Pretty if individual mistakes, such as those in convictions in more than two-dozen wrongful conviction cases that have been overturned, invalidate bite marks.

“What we are talking about today is not one mistake,” Pretty said. “I’m not even sure we’re talking about mistakes. We’re talking about fundamental underlying science not supporting what has happened.”

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said the Innocence Project requested for Howard’s conviction to be vacated and the case to be not tried again. Failing that, the Innocence Project is requesting a new trial. Carrington said it’s possible the court could choose not to grant relief.

“Generally speaking, we’ve asked for a new trial based on the results of DNA evidence and the evolution for the science around bite marks over the years,” Carrington said. “Specifically, we know that bite marks have been responsible for 25, 26 wrongful convictions, including three here in Mississippi — all done by (West).”

West was present during Wednesday’s hearing. He is expected to testify this week, Carrington said.

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Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com

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