Eddie Lee Howard Jr.: Remains on death row based on dubious “bite marks” testimony

Firefighters who put out a smoldering fire in the living room of a Columbus, Mississippi, house in February, 1992, found Georgia Kemp, 82, lying dead on her bedroom floor, a bloody butcher knife on her bed.

This story is the tenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

Firefighters who put out a smoldering fire in the living room of a Columbus, Mississippi, house in February, 1992, found Georgia Kemp, 82, lying dead on her bedroom floor, a bloody butcher knife on her bed.

An autopsy the next day concluded that she died of two stab wounds to her chest and suffered vaginal injuries “consistent with forced sexual intercourse.”

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Unrequited Innocence

Eddie Lee Howard, Jr., 38, was a logical suspect: He lived two blocks from Kemp and had twice been in prison for sex offenses.

Kemp’s body was exhumed three days after she was buried because, as the medical examiner put it, there “was some question” – though he had not mentioned it in his autopsy report – that she had been bitten. Before the body was exhumed, police detained Howard and took him to a dental office, where, with his consent, impressions were made of his teeth.

Eddie Lee Howard, Jr.

Mississippi Department of Corrections

Eddie Lee Howard, Jr.

Two days later, based on a comparison of the impressions with bite marks supposedly detected by dentist Dr. Michael West, police arrested Howard, who was black, for the rape and murder of Kemp, who was white.

Howard remained in custody more than two years when, after disputes with his court-appointed counsel over delays, he ended up representing himself at his 1994 trial. The prosecution relied almost exclusively on the testimony of Dr. West, whose qualifications were not challenged by Howard and who proceeded to tell the jury that one of several bite marks that he had found on Kemp’s body was a “positive match” to Howard’s teeth.

The only evidence that Kemp had suffered bite marks was Dr. West’s word; they were not visible in photos taken during the autopsy.

Columbus police officer David Turner testified that Howard had told him, “I had a temper and that’s why this happened,” – a statement Turner had not noted at the time it supposedly happened.

Forensic testing did not find seminal or blood evidence, and the prosecution left it to the jury to infer from the autopsy report of vaginal injuries and the bite-mark testimony that Kemp had been raped.

After three days of testimony and a rambling closing statement by Howard, who went so far as to suggest one of the jurors might have committed the crime, the jury found him guilty of murder and rape. The same day, after a brief sentencing hearing, the jury sentenced him to death.

On June 26, 1997, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a retrial, holding that Howard’s behavior should have called into question his fitness to represent himself and that the judge had erred by not holding a competency hearing.

Howard’s retrial began in May 2000. Dr. West reiterated his bite-mark testimony and Officer Turner again claimed Howard had made the incriminating statement. This time, the prosecution called a new witness, Kayfen Fulgham, an ex-girlfriend of Howard, who told the jury that Howard had sometimes bitten her breasts and neck during sex and that, when she saw him the day after Kemp’s body was found, he smelled “like burnt clothes or something, you know, wood, like smoke.”

Fulgham had not mentioned either the biting or the smell of smoke when she was interviewed before the first trial, according to a statement she provided then.

Howard was again convicted and recommended a death sentence, though when the jury was polled one juror disavowed the verdict. Howard’s lawyers asked the judge to impose a life sentence, but the judge instead told the jurors to resume deliberating, that a death sentence required unanimity. They returned with a unanimous death sentence recommendation and affirmed it when polled.

In 2010, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered the retesting of the butcher knife and Kemp’s nightgown, after two men were exonerated who had been falsely convicted of murders involving reports and testimony by Hayne and West.

West, in another murder, said in a deposition that “I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis. I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA, throw bite marks out.”

The new DNA testing found no DNA at the points on the nightgown where saliva would have been left, had Kemp been bitten as described. The testing also excluded Howard as the source of male DNA on the handle of the butcher knife.

In 2015, Howard sought to overturn his conviction based on the DNA results and West’s deposition testimony. But at a hearing ordered by the state high court, Dr. West backed down on his bite-mark disavowal, testifying, “I remember having my highest opinion as to the perpetrator who left the bite marks [on Kemp’s body]. It was Eddie Lee Howard.”

The trial judge denied Howard’s motion, asserting that the DNA results did not point to a perpetrator other than Howard.

Howard has appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court. The state argued in October that relief should continue to be denied.

In the meantime, Howard remains on death row.