January 8, 2021 9:56:07 AM
A judge has signed an order dismissing the case against a Lowndes County man who spent more than 20 years on death row for a wrongful conviction.
Prosecutors formally dropped a murder charge against Eddie Lee Howard, 67, who was first arrested in 1992 for the death of Georgia Kemp, 84. Howard was convicted twice for the murder, first in 1994 and then, after the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned that conviction after ruling Howard should not have represented himself in the case, again in 2000.
In both trials, the physical evidence prosecutors used to place Howard at the scene was forensic bite mark evidence after forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West testified that bite marks he found on Kemp's body matched a dental mold taken of Howard's teeth. However, both West and forensic odontology have come under fire in recent years, and the American Board of Forensic Odontology has revised its guidelines prohibiting the use of testimony like West's in criminal trials. The supreme court overturned the conviction based on that and the lack of DNA evidence and other evidence presented in the previous trials.
Those were among the same reasons District Attorney Scott Colom said he filed a motion to dismiss the case after the supreme court remanded it to Lowndes County Circuit Court.
"After reading the supreme court's opinion, reading the trial transcripts from the two trials, reviewing the investigative files and case files of the case, I decided that we didn't have even remotely close to sufficient evidence to convict Mr. Howard beyond a reasonable doubt," Colom said. "Therefore, under my legal, ethical responsibilities, I had no choice but to dismiss the case."
Kemp's body was found in her burned trailer in February 1992. Medical examiner Steven Hayne examined the body and ruled that Kemp had been stabbed to death, but it wasn't until after Kemp's body was buried and exhumed that West claimed to find bite marks on her arm, neck and breast. West's testimony had also been evidence presented in the cases of Noxubee County men Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both of whom had been convicted of separate murders in the early 1990s. DNA evidence later found that the two men had been wrongfully convicted, and they were exonerated.
Even at the 2000 trial, defense attorney Thomas Kesler objected to West's being accepted as an expert witness in the case and claimed he was a "hired gun," according to a transcript of the trial.
"'If you need a gunfighter, hire me, I come and I shoot whoever you want me to shoot,'" Kesler said during closing arguments in the trial, referencing a television show from the late 1950s about a gun fighter. "Well that's exactly what Dr. West is. He's just a modern day gunfighter who has chosen that he wants to always work for law enforcement."
The Mississippi Innocence Project, an organization of attorneys and other legal professionals who use DNA evidence to look at old cases and, in many cases, exonerate those wrongfully convicted, ordered a DNA test of evidence in Howard's case in the mid-2000s and found that male DNA found at the scene did not match Howard. The Innocence Project also took on Brewer's and Brooks' cases.
Howard was released from Mississippi Department of Corrections custody on his personal recognizance in December.
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