Prosecutors in the U.S. often decry what is sometimes called the “CSI Effect.” Movies and TV crime dramas like the popular “CSI” franchise on CBS can fill jurors’ heads with unrealistic expectations about forensic science. But there’s also a flip side to the CSI Effect: Because jurors are ready to believe the fantastical feats preformed by the wondrous forensics computers they see on screen, an unscrupulous prosecutor armed with an expert willing to offer otherwise dubious forensics on the witness stand can cause a lot of damage.
Witness Michael West. In the early 1990s, West, a dentist in Hattiesburg, Miss., was one of country’s most prolific forensic odontologists, or bite mark specialists. West claimed to have perfected a new method of identifying bite marks on human skin, saying he could then match them to the teeth of a criminal suspect. Conveniently, West often testified that only he could perform this new analysis, which he called the “West Phenomenon.”
Over the years, West broadened his areas of claimed expertise, testifying in at least 10 states as a wound pattern expert, a trace metals expert, a gun shot residue expert, a gunshot reconstruction expert, a crime scene investigator, a blood spatter expert, a “tool mark” expert, a fingernail scratch expert and an expert in “liquid splash patterns.” He also got himself elected coroner of Forrest County, Miss. Though West was discredited in a number of national media reports beginning in the mid-1990s, he continued to testify in Mississippi courtrooms until just a few years ago.
Mississippi prosecutors no longer use West as a witness, but state Attorney General Jim Hood continues to defend convictions won because of his testimony. And Mississippi’s appeals courts continue to uphold them. There are still dozens of people still in prison thanks either to West’s testimony or his forensics reports, and Mississippi officials don’t seem particularly concerned about them. One of those people is Leigh Stubbs, now 10 years into a 44-year prison sentence.