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Mississippi woman still behind bars despite debunked expert’s role in her conviction

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The Mississippi Innocence Project is working to free a woman who was convicted based on testimony from debunked forensic expert Michael West. Leigh Stubbs was 20 when she decided to check herself out of rehab, leaving with two fellow patients, Tammy Vance and Kimberly Williams. Stubbs and Vance dropped Williams off at her boyfriend’s house. Williams later met back up with them after stealing some Oxycontin from her boyfriend. Williams and Vance were using drugs and drinking, but Stubbs remained sober in order to drive. The three women later checked into a motel together for the night.

The next morning Stubbs and Vance woke up but could not wake Williams, so they left to go get some food. When they returned to the room, Stubbs and Vance noticed that Williams was having trouble breathing. They called 911 and Williams was taken to the hospital. While being treated for a drug overdose, medical staff discovered bruising and evidence of sexual assault, although a rape kit was inconclusive.

Williams fell into a coma. After she recovered several days later, she could not provide any information on who might have attacked her.

Stubbs and Vance were charged with drug possession and assault. Michael West testified at Stubbs’ trial as a forensic odontologist (bite mark specialist). He claimed to have discovered a method he dubbed the “West Phenomenon,” in which he could identify bite marks on human skin and match then to a suspect.

At Stubbs’ trial West testified that he found bite marks on Williams and was able to match them to Stubbs. He also testified as a video enhancement expert, claiming to link a video of two women entering the motel to Stubbs and the victim, despite the fact that FBI experts had determined that they could not see anything of value in the videotape. Stubbs was convicted largely based on West’s “expert” testimony.

In the early 1990s, West managed to establish himself as an expert in no fewer than eight different fields including wound patterns, trace metals, gun shot residue, crime scene investigator, blood splatter, tool marks, fingernail scratch patterns, and liquid splash patterns. West testified in at least nine states. He was discredited in numerous media reports in the mid-1990s, but he continued to testify in Mississippi courtrooms until only a few years ago.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project said, “The use of Michael West as an expert at any point in time was inexcusable. There was never any basis for his work to be considered valid as a forensic science. But using him in this case in 2001, after his work had been discredited, and after the FBI’s experts had reported that they could not see anything in that videotape, that’s really a new low.”

In 2007, two men – Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks –were exonerated by DNA testing and freed. Both men were separately tried and convicted of unrelated child murders based on West’s testimony. West claimed to have found bite marks on the victims that no other doctor saw and matched them to the suspects.

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