A Dentist Takes the Stand: A Top Expert Witness in Grisly Murder Cases, Dr. Michael West Has Helped Put Dozens of People Behind Bars. Prosecutors Love Him, but Many Lawyers Say He Confuses Jurors with 'Junk Science.'

Newsweek, August 20, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Dentist Takes the Stand: A Top Expert Witness in Grisly Murder Cases, Dr. Michael West Has Helped Put Dozens of People Behind Bars. Prosecutors Love Him, but Many Lawyers Say He Confuses Jurors with 'Junk Science.'


When a 3-year-old girl named Christine Jackson was found raped and strangled near Brooksville, Miss., sheriff's investigators focused on Kennedy Brewer, 21. Brewer looked like the right guy. He was Christine's mother's boyfriend, and he was at home alone with Christine and his own two children on the night the little girl disappeared. But there was no hard evidence. Trace amounts of semen were recovered from Christine's body, but the sample was too small for a DNA match under the lab techniques available back in 1992. So prosecutors called Dr. Michael West, an affable and supremely confident forensic dentist from Hattiesburg. West testified that he had examined 19 mysterious wounds on Christine's body and decided they were bite marks. He also said five of the marks matched Brewer's teeth "with reasonable medical certainty." Jurors took only 95 minutes to convict Brewer, and they gave him the death penalty the next day. He is now on death row at Parchman State Penitentiary.

West has been saving tough cases for police and prosecutors for more than 15 years--a much-sought-after clutch witness who, by testifying in 71 trials in nine states, has helped send dozens of defendants away. But his performance as an expert witness has long been controversial. Defense lawyers call him a "snake-oil salesman" peddling "junk science" to credulous judges and juries. West has been criticized repeatedly for overstating the value of his findings and for testifying on scientific subjects in which he has little expertise--including bloodstains and wound analysis. Facing ethics investigations by his peers, he resigned from the International Association of Identification in 1993 and the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1994. He was investigated by the American Board of Forensic Odontology and became the only member ever suspended by the group, although he was later reinstated. "His results are beyond outrageous," says Dr. Richard Souviron, a Miami forensic dentist who is one of West's sharpest critics. "He has hurt a lot of people." Kennedy Brewer, it turns out, may be one of them. Despite West's absolute confidence on the stand, new DNA tests show that two other men raped Christine Jackson, and Brewer's lawyers--hoping for a new trial--are directly challenging West's testimony in the case.

In the past, West has attributed criticism of his work to "ignorance" and "personal jealousy." He has described himself as an "expert for the truth" who has exonerated more suspects than he helped to convict. He has also modified his style. In years past, West routinely told juries his forensic findings were "indeed and without doubt" correct. But when professional groups attacked the phrase as misleading, he dropped it. Contacted by NEWSWEEK for this article, West declined to be interviewed at length and said the magazine should "stop bothering me."

West's real strength, critics and defenders agree, is his ability to convince a jury, even when the evidence seems thin. In a Louisiana case, West testified that he could match the bruise on a dead boy's stomach to a hiking boot owned by his mother--a remarkable feat even for a trauma specialist, which West is not. The defense lawyer in the case, Robert Toale, says West charmed the jurors. "It's like you're in his living room and he's saying, 'Who would ever disagree with me, because I'm so smart and such a nice guy?' " Toale says. But when Toale asked West on the stand what his error rate was, West responded with a stunning bit of arrogance. "Something less than my Savior, Jesus Christ," he said.

As a forensic dentist, West specializes in teeth and bite-mark analysis--but he has been accepted by judges as an expert in crime-scene investigation, forensic photography, video enhancement, gunshot residue, wound patterns, bloodstain analysis and the use of ultraviolet light for detecting evidence. His experience as county coroner--the position is elective in Mississippi, and he served five years--may impress judges. …

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A Dentist Takes the Stand: A Top Expert Witness in Grisly Murder Cases, Dr. Michael West Has Helped Put Dozens of People Behind Bars. Prosecutors Love Him, but Many Lawyers Say He Confuses Jurors with 'Junk Science.'
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