A black man who spent 26 years on death row for murder was exonerated on Friday after new DNA testing revealed he was not the perpetrator.
“I want to say many thanks to the many people who are responsible for helping to make my dream of freedom a reality,” said Eddie Lee Howard, who was convicted in 1994 of murdering an elderly white woman in Columbus, Mississippi, 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.”
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
Prosecutors convicted Howard on now-discredited bite-mark evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
During his trial, prosecutors pointed to bite-mark evidence found on 84-year-old Georgia Kemp’s body to convict Howard, according to USA Today. Twenty years later, the bite-mark evidence was dismissed by the expert who testified its credibility, according to the report.
“I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis,” forensic odontologist Michael West of Hattiesburg testified in a 2012 deposition, according to USA Today. “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bike marks out.”
West’s testimony, along with new alibi witnesses and DNA testing of the crime scene evidence, including blood and DNA from the murder weapon, proved Howard was not the perpetrator. The Mississippi Supreme Court in August also recognized that the bite mark was not enough to tie Howard to the murder.
“An individual perpetrator cannot be reliably identified through bite-mark comparison,” the court said. (RELATED: Firing Squads, The Electric Chair And A Drug Cocktail: The State Of The Death Penalty In America)
“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 continued.
The high court vacated Howard’s conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial. Lowndes County District Attorney Scott Colom, after reviewing the new evidence in conjunction with Mississippi’s Supreme Court decision, decided not to retry the case, ending Howard’s wrongful conviction, according to the Innocence Project.
Howard spent 26 years on death row at Parchman Farm – a former slave plantation-turned-prison, according to the Innocence Project. Howard was released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in early December.
“This is such a bitter sweet victory,” Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project said. “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.”
In Mississippi, more than half of the prison population is black, according to the Sentencing Project.