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Voodoo Science Can Convict the Innocent

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August 3, 2007

Yesterday, featured an editorial by Reason magazine senior editor Radley Balko about an upcoming hearing in the new murder trial for former death-row prisoner Brewer Kennedy, who was convicted in Mississippi in 1991 and sentenced to death for raping and murdering a 3-year-old girl. The conviction relied heavily on the testimony of a dentist, Dr. Michael West, whose methodology is best described as voodoo science. Brewer was granted a new trial when he was excluded as the source of DNA found in the little girl’s body. Nonetheless, the State of Mississippi intends to retry him.

West’s court testimony sometimes relies on findings he uncovers with a long-wave ultraviolet blue light, which the doctor claims reveals bite marks, scratches and other evidence that other forensic scientists can’t see. His findings cannot be reproduced in court, so juries just have to take West by his word. Shockingly, West has testified in dozens of trials, including many death penalty cases, and his testimony has lead to the conviction of other innocent men.

As Balko notes, the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project Director John Holdridge has successfully challenged West’s findings in the past. In 1993, John freed Larry Maxwell, an innocent man charged with three capital murders in Mississippi, and later helped to exonerate Anthony Keko, who was wrongfully convicted in Louisiana of killing his ex-wife. Both men had faced West’s dubious science in court.

John also filed ethics complaints against West with three professional organizations to which the doctor belonged; those complaints resulted in West’s resignation from two of the groups, and suspension from the other. Despite this loss of standing in the forensic community, he’s still routinely called to testify in death penalty trials, almost always for the prosecution. He’s set to testify again at Brewer’s upcoming trial.

Despite what CSI, Law & Order and all the other crime shows portray, bite mark analysis, along with much of forensic identification science, has never been shown to be scientifically valid or reliable. We hope the jury in Brewer’s new trial will cast a wary eye on this controversial “science,” and dismiss West the way his colleagues and professional community have in the past.

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