Black Man Freed From Prison After 26 Years Spent On Death Row In Mississippi
Eddie Lee Howard was wrongfully sentenced to death in 1994 all on the basis of one bite mark.
January 13, 2021 at 10:28 pm
Howard was freed from prison in December and a court struck down his conviction on Friday, according to a statement from The Innocence Project.
“I want to say many thanks to the many people who are responsible for helping to make my dream of freedom a reality,” the 67-year-old said in a statement.
“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.”
Howard has spent 26 years fighting the conviction from death row in Mississippi after he was wrongfully convicted of murdering an elderly white woman in Columbus, Mississippi.
But thanks to his sister and other witnesses who confirmed his alibi, as well as DNA evidence from the murder weapon, Howard was allowed to leave prison in December.
The Mississippi Supreme Court threw out Howard's conviction in August due to the original prosecutor's reliance on a single set of bite marks found on 84-year-old Georgia Kemp, who was raped and murdered in 1992 before her home was set on fire.
After 26 years on death row in Mississippi, Eddie Lee Howard has been exonerated. Eddie, an Innocence Project and @olemisslaw client, is our first exonerated client of 2021! Join us in welcoming him home. https://t.co/Z0GNjVIlnU— The Innocence Project (@innocence) January 12, 2021
The court agreed with Howard's lawyers that an “individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite mark comparison” and slammed the prosecutors for effectively basing their entire case around the single set of bite marks.
"After reviewing the record, we conclude that Howard's evidence as to the change in the scientific understanding of the reliability of identification through bite-mark comparisons was almost uncontested. Based on this record, we agree with Howard that a forensic dentist would not be permitted to identify Howard as the biter today as Dr. West did at Howard's trial in 2000," the court said in its August decision.
District Attorney Scott Colom agreed not to retry the murder charges, allowing Howard to walk free after decades spent unfairly in prison.
The Innocence Project lawyers for Howard, Vanessa Potkin and M. Chris Fabricant, said in a statement that the prosecutors relied on "junk science" to nearly end Howard's life.
“The Mississippi Supreme Court has taken a powerful stance in rejecting junk science as the basis on which to put a man to death. 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,” Fabricant said.
The harsh sentence was "based on unfounded forensics with no physical evidence or witnesses to the crime," Potkin added.
“Like Mr. Howard, 21 other men and women on death row across the country have had their innocence proven by DNA, including Kennedy Brewer. Mr. Brewer, who is also a Black man, spent 15 years on Mississippi’s death row based on false bite mark evidence," Potkin noted.
"We know there are more innocent people currently on death row pleading for post-conviction relief. The death penalty is the most extreme and irreversible form of punishment. Mr. Howard’s case is a prime example of why we cannot afford to use it when human error is still so prevalent in the criminal justice system.”
The Innocence Project explained that Howard was one of many cases throughout the country where the police, in this case, police in Lowndes County, were struggling to find suspects and effectively targeted a random person in order to secure any conviction they could.
Despite the lack of evidence and now disproven testimony from an expert used in the original trial, Howard spent 26 years on death row at Parchman Farm, which is notoriously one of the most horrible prisons in the country.
Howard's charges were originally thrown out in 1997 but he was retried in 2000 after Dr. Michael West said in court that he believed the bite marks matched Howard's teeth, according to CBS News. West has since said in court testimony that he no longer thinks bite marking should be used as evidence in court cases.
CBS News noted that testimony from West was used in another case that has since been thrown out.
“This is such a bittersweet victory. 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," said Tucker Carrington, a lawyer with the Mississippi Innocence Project that helped on the case.
"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,” Carrington added.
A fundraising campaign has been started for Howard as he begins to rebuild his life. More than $24,000 has been raised so far.