Black man wrongfully on death row for killing white woman freed after 26 years

The Mississippi Supreme Court vacated Eddie Lee Howard's conviction and death sentence last August

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Eddie Lee Howard, Jr. was wrongfully convicted of the rape and murder of a woman and sentenced to death in 1994. Now, after serving decades behind bars, he is free after scientific evidence was deemed non-conclusive.

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According to The Innocence Project, Howard was named the suspect and found guilty for the rape and murder of 84-year-old Georgia Kemp. He was linked to the crime by a doctor who claimed that bite marks found on the victim were a match to Howard’s teeth. The case was based almost entirely on this evidence.

The American Bar Association reported in August 2020 that Howard was granted new proceedings based on bite mark analysis, new DNA testing, and an additional lack of evidence. According to the ABA, using bite marks as evidence has been criticized in recent years due to the lack of scientific support or research on the reliability of the results. Yet Howard was convicted twice based on the findings.

During his original trial, Howard represented himself. The state solely relied on the bite marks to prove its case, even though Kemp’s original autopsy did not highlight any bite marks, the ABA found. They were not found until an additional forensic odontologist, Dr. Michael West, allegedly discovered the teeth imprints.

Eddie Lee Howard
Image via The Innocence Project

The ABA says despite their importance in the case, no one else saw them, and photographs of the bite marks were also never displayed. Still, Howard was sentenced to death though that sentence was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court due to issues with “the trial court’s handling of Mr. Howard’s pro se representation.”

At the second trial in 2000, the prosecution again used the bite mark evidence as proof of Howard’s guilt. Dr. West named Howard’s dental impressions as an identical match to the bite marks he allegedly found on Kemp’s body. At the time, his testimony was supported by guidelines set by the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO), an organization he is a member of. But in 2013 and again in 2016, ABFO modified its guidelines on the use of bite mark evidence. Howard is now the 34th person in the United States to have their sentence overturned due to bite mark evidence.

In data collected by The Innocence Project, of the 375 DNA exonerations recorded in the United States since 1989, 225 are Black people.

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“I want to say many thanks to the many people who are responsible for helping to make my dream of freedom a reality,” Howard said, according to the Innocence Project. “I thank you with all my heart, because without your hard work on my behalf, I would still be confined in that terrible place called the Mississippi Department of Corrections, on death row, waiting to be executed.”

On Aug. 31, 2020, Howard’s death sentence and conviction were vacated by the Mississippi Supreme Court.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken a powerful stance in rejecting junk science as the basis on which to put a man to death,” said M. Chris Fabricant, one of Howard’s attorneys. “We are thankful that the court has identified this breakdown in Mr. Howard’s case, ruling that debunked science has no place in our justice system.”

In all, Howard’s legal team was staffed by Fabricant, Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project, Vanessa Potkin, Peter Neufeld and Dana Delger, all of the Innocence Project, affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University.

“We’re thrilled that Mr. Howard will finally have his freedom and some semblance of justice 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,” said Carrington.

According to the official website, The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 by Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck at Cardozo School of Law. It uses continually advancing technology and “exonerates the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reforms the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.”

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