A Black Mississippi man who was convicted of raping and murdering an 84-year-old White woman and sentenced to death in 1994 has been exonerated after the state Supreme Court “discredited” bite mark evidence that was used to convict him.
In a statement, the Innocence Project, who represented Eddie Lee Howard, said their client was cleared of the crime based on new forensic opinion pertaining to bite marks as well as strong alibis, and new DNA tests that were conducted on the crime scene evidence. The blood and DNA samples taken from the murder weapon did not tie Howard to the murder.
According to CNN, Howard was convicted of the murder after a doctor testified the bite marks found on the body of the victim – Georgia Kemp – matched Howard’s teeth. In August, the Mississippi Supreme Court, however, ruled that the bite-mark comparisons were not substantial enough to link Howard to the murder, writing that “an individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite-mark comparison.”
“After reviewing the record, we conclude that Howard’s evidence as to the change in the scientific understanding of the reliability of identification through bite-mark comparisons was almost uncontested. Based on this record, we agree with Howard that a forensic dentist would not be permitted to identify Howard as the biter today as Dr. West did at Howard’s trial in 2000,” the court wrote.
In effect, the Mississippi Supreme Court, on August 31, moved to vacate Howard’s conviction after being on death row for over two decades. He was subsequently released from the state’s death row in December and was finally exonerated on Friday, January 8.
“I want to say many thanks to the many people who are responsible for helping to make my dream of freedom a reality,” Howard said in a statement via the Innocence Project. “I thank you with all my heart, because without your hard work on my behalf, I would still be confined in that terrible place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, waiting to be executed.”
Howard is among four formerly incarcerated Mississippi natives on death to have been ultimately exonerated as a result of discredited and unscientific forensic evidence, according to the Innocence Project. He is also the 28th person in the United States convicted with bite-mark comparison evidence to be exonerated.
“Mr. Howard was sentenced to death based on unfounded forensics with no physical evidence or witnesses to the crime,” Vanessa Potkin, one of Howard’s attorneys, said.
“Like Mr. Howard, 21 other men and women on death row across the country have had their innocence proven by DNA, including Kennedy Brewer. Mr. Brewer, who is also a Black man, spent 15 years on Mississippi’s death row based on false bite mark evidence. We know there are more innocent people currently on death row pleading for post-conviction relief. The death penalty is the most extreme and irreversible form of punishment. Mr. Howard’s case is a prime example of why we cannot afford to use it when human error is still so prevalent in the criminal justice system.”