Studio portrait of Sid Salter. (photo by Beth Wynn / © Mississippi State University)

By: Sid Salter

A decade ago, I was writing about what I saw as a crisis in Mississippi’s death investigation system. Last week, the state Supreme Court took an essential step toward facing up to a system that remained broken for decades in the case of Death Row inmate Eddie Lee Howard Jr.

During my years writing about Mississippi’s Death Row inmates and the state’s flawed death investigation system, I became familiar with Howard and the 1992 murder of 82-year-old Georgia Kemp. Mrs. Kemp died of two stab wounds to the chest, and what appeared to have been a brutal beating and choking from her assailant as she struggled for her life on the floor of her trailer.

Medical Examiner Dr. Steven Hayne on autopsy ruled that Mrs. Kemp died of the stab wounds, but said he found signs of rape. Rape and the fact that a fire had been set at the murder scene produced the elements necessary for Howard to face a capital murder indictment under Mississippi law.

Three days after Mrs. Kemp’s burial, Hayne told prosecutors he recalled seeing what might have been bite marks on the victim’s body. Officials exhumed the woman’s body and transported the remains to Hattiesburg for an examination by odontologist Dr. Michael West, who would ultimately testify that there were indeed bite marks on the body and that, after investigation, the bite marks definitely belonged to Howard.

Yet Hayne’s initial autopsy report did not reference bite marks. Howard spent some 26 years on Death Row – and Mississippi’s version of that is as hard a time as hard time gets for prisoners.

Last week, the Supreme Court vacated Howard’s conviction and death sentence and granted him a new trial based on the court’s majority ruling that: “Given the inadmissibility of Dr. West’s identification of Howard as the biter, the absence of forensic or eyewitness evidence putting Howard at the scene of the crime, and the newly discovered presence of another man’s DNA on the murder weapon, we conclude that Howard met his burden to show by a preponderance of the evidence that in light of his newly discovered evidence, a jury would probably not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In a statement after the court’s ruling, the Mississippi Innocence Project said that Howard was “the fourth Mississippian tried and convicted for capital murder based on the forensic work and testimony of Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West.”

In 2008, inmates Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were exonerated in the killings of two toddlers in separate cases. Both were convicted mostly on the testimony of Hayne and odontologist Dr. Michael West. Hayne had identified bite marks on the body of the children.

West claimed the bite marks were made by the two front teeth of the suspects. A panel of experts later successfully refuted the theory. Hayne’s contract with the state ended in 2008.

Mississippi is a state that talks tough on crime. But for many decades, we didn’t want to foot the bill for a qualified, board-certified state medical examiner and a team of forensic pathologists to shoulder the burden of investigating deaths in the state. The county coroner system was firmly entrenched well into this decade.

Want to be tough on crime? Then Mississippi taxpayers must pay for qualified forensic pathologists, adequate post-conviction counsel, adequate capital case defense, modern DNA evidence gathering and storage capabilities, and an overall professional death investigation system.

Failure to do so undermines otherwise righteous convictions by the state’s prosecutors and ultimately makes all of us less safe. In the final analysis, fair criminal justice is a lot safer for taxpayers and defendant alike.