16 January 2021 :
Eddie Lee Howard Exonerated From Mississippi Death Row After 26 Years. He is the 174th former death-row prisoner exonerated in the U.S. since 1973. He was released from Mississippi’s death row in early December 2020 ahead of today’s ruling.
Eddie Lee Howard, Jr., convicted and sentenced to death based on the false forensic testimony of a since disgraced prosecution expert witness, has been exonerated after nearly 26 years on Mississippi’s death row.
The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Howard’s conviction in August 2020 (see HoC 27/08/2020). He was first sentenced to death for the 1992 murder and alleged rape of an 84-year-old white woman. In an 8-1 decision, the court held that discredited bite-mark testimony, exculpatory DNA evidence, “and the paucity of other evidence linking Howard to the murder” entitled him to a new trial. Howard was freed pending retrial in December 2020.
On January 8, 2021, the trial court granted a motion by Lowndes County District Attorney Scott Colom to dismiss all charges against Howard. “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.
Howard was represented by lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project and the national Innocence Project. The Mississippi Innocence Project’s founding director, Tucker Carrington, called Howard’s exoneration “a bittersweet victory.” “We’re thrilled that Mr. Howard will finally have his freedom and some semblance of justice,” Carrington said, “but he has lost nearly three decades of his life facing execution because the system failed. His case reminds us that there is still much work to be done to support Mr. Howard and others like him who have lost precious years of their lives to wrongful convictions.”
Howard was first convicted and sentenced to death in 1994 in a trial in which he represented himself. The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned that conviction in 1997 and ordered a new trial. He was convicted and sentenced to death again in a retrial in 2000 at which forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West testified that Howard was the source of bite marks he claimed to have found on the victim’s body during a post-autopsy, post-exhumation examination of her body. Forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne conducted the autopsy in the case and claimed that the victim had been beaten, strangled, stabbed, and raped. His initial autopsy report did not mention bite marks.
Howard’s lawyers presented DNA evidence during post-conviction evidentiary hearings in 2016 that eviscerated the prosecution’s false forensic testimony. DNA testing showed no evidence of semen or male DNA on the victim’s clothing, bedsheets, or body and no male DNA on the locations on the victim’s body where she supposedly had been bitten. None of the blood or other items tested contained Howard’s DNA. Male DNA found on the knife used by the murderer excluded Howard as the source.
Prosecutors had successfully opposed Howard’s efforts to overturn his conviction in the trial court. On appeal, they argued that Howard’s conviction should stand, despite the false forensic testimony and new DNA evidence, because Howard allegedly had made an incriminating statement to a police detective that “the case is solved“ and admitting he “had a temper and that’s why this happened.” The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed that the alleged statement was “peculiar and suspicious,” but noted that the statement contained no details about the crime, had not been recorded or heard by anyone else, and the detective did not subsequently ask Howard to put in writing. Viewed in the context of all of the new evidence, the court said, the statement did “not amount to a confession.”
In 2018, in their book The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, Carrington and Washington Post columnist Radley Balko exposed the broad impact of junk science testimony from Hayne and West in trials in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. According to the Mississippi Innocence Project, Howard was the fourth person convicted of capital murder in Mississippi based upon their false forensic testimony. In 2008, the Innocence Project exonerated death-row prisoner Kennedy Brewer and his co-defendant Levon Brooks, who had been sentenced to life, after DNA testing excluded them and identified the actual killer.