Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bite Me

His name is Michael West.  He's a dentist in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and he's been a good friend to the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd.  Jerry Mitchell in the Clarion-Ledger.
West has estimated he's worked on 16,000 cases, and he's put the number of trials he's testified at across the U.S. as an expert at 81.
According to his resume, courts have recognized him as an expert in bite marks, child abuse, wound pattern analysis, crime scene reconstruction and ultraviolet photography.
Over the decades, his testimony has proved effective. Of the 38 Mississippi criminal trials in which The Clarion-Ledger could find a record of West's testimony, 31 ended in convictions.
I don't know where he stands on most of his alleged specialties (or how it happens that being a dentist tends to make him an "expert" on, say, crime scene reconstruction or ultraviolet photography or most of that stuff; except bite marks, I suppose).  But I know something about the bite mark thing.
It is, as those of us who blog with foul mouths (or foul typing fingers) like to say, the most fragrant of bull shit.
Like fingerprints and shoe tread comparisons and ballistic matches and all the other forensic techniques that pretend to be science but are really just the meaningless declarations of trained lookers, there is (sorry) far less to bit mark comparison than meets the eye.  Really, the "expert" is just someone who sounds convincing when he says
I looked at this guy's teeth and at something or other on the body and by-golly they look the same to me, so it's 100% certain that he bit that body.
Except, well, no.  It's not.  It could be true, of course.  It could be false.  One study said the so-called "matches" are wrong more often than they're right.  The truth is that there's no telling.  None.  Zip. Worthless.
Dr. West, on the other hand, 
declared in one case that his error rate was "something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ."
Which may or may not say something about his relationship with his Savior, but surely tells us something about West.
He compared these bite marks to fingerprints, describing their unique characteristics to jurors.
Who, as we've seen, bought his junk science.
OK, I'm done savaging Michael West for this hokum.  His days as a bite mark mountebank are over. (Whether his days as a charlatan in his other fields of alleged expertise are done, I can't say.)
"I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis," he said in a 2011 deposition obtained by The Clarion-Ledger. "I don't think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out."
. . .
In his deposition, West said when he testified at the Stubbs and Vance trial, he believed in the uniqueness of bite marks. "I no longer believe in that," he said. "And if I was asked to testify in this case again, I would say I don't believe it's a system that's reliable enough to be used in court."
Good for him.
The reason for the deposition, of course, is that several of the folks he helped put behind bars have challenged their convictions, taking on his testimony.  And he's fessed up.
The thing is, he's not the only one.  The trained lookers who pretend to godlike perfection in their purported "analysis" continue to testify.  Juries continue to buy their spurious conclusions.  And people continue to be convicted of crimes they didn't commit.
So once again, good for Michael West.
And oh, yeah.  It's about damn time.
Now, for the rest of you experts --


  1. Maybe this helped convince him:

  2. I'd forgotten that story. Thanks for tracking it down.