Mississippi Innocence Project Develops Lead in 1997 Rape Homicide

Team works with Humphreys County Sheriff on breakthrough in murder of Kathy Mabry

OXFORD, Miss.– The Mississippi Innocence Project, a clinic based at the University of Mississippi School of Law, has developed leads on biological evidence left at the scene of an unsolved 1997 rape and stabbing homicide in Humphreys County.

The partially clothed body of Kathy Mabry, 39, was discovered March 25, 1997, in a vacant house in Isola. She had suffered multiple stab wounds.

The leads prompted MIP to seek the help of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police and the Humphreys County Sheriff’s Department, which ultimately requested the Mississippi Crime Lab to conduct DNA testing.

That test developed a profile of sufficient quality to upload to the Combined Index DNA System, known as CODIS, a national database of DNA profiles. The testing subsequently disclosed a match between a convicted murderer, who had originally been a suspect, and the evidence found at the scene.“This case has several repercussions for the state,” said Tucker Carrington, MIP director. “On the one hand, we worked together to bring some closure to a cold case. On the other, it once again begs questions about how many more cases involving forensic malfeasance are out there, and why some state officials continue to downplay the significance of that.”

MIP’s efforts on the case grew out of its representation of Leigh Stubbs, who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and drug charges in Lincoln County in 2000. MIP staff and student attorneys represented Stubbs in her bid to have her conviction and sentence overturned.

The Lincoln County Circuit Court granted that request in the summer of 2012. Also freed was Stubbs’s co-defendant, Tami Vance, represented pro bono by Merrida Coxwell of Coxwell and Associates in Jackson.

In Stubbs’s and Vance’s case, an FBI report, disclosed pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, detailed the bureau’s analysis of a surveillance videotape that Mississippi prosecutors had requested a separate evaluation for what they believed might show criminal conduct. Instead, the FBI found that the tape was of such poor quality that nothing of value could be discerned.

The FBI furnished its report and the details of its findings to the requesting prosecutors. Instead of providing the report to Stubbs’s and Vance’s lawyers, as required by law, prosecutors turned to Dr. Michael West for analysis.

West, a now-derided forensic expert and Mississippi dentist who has testified for the prosecution in nine states over two decades, has been used primarily because of his claimed expertise in matching bite marks on victims to the dentition of charged suspects.

Aided by his colleague, Dr. Steven Hayne, Mississippi’s longtime de facto pathologist (Hayne has never passed the statutorily required forensic exam) who employed West, the two provided the forensic evidence that led to the wrongful conviction of Levon Brooks in 1991 and Kennedy Brewer a few years later.

Brooks and Brewer served a combined 30 years in prison, Brewer on death row. They were freed in 2008.

“By the time of Stubbs and Vance’s trial, West had already been widely discredited as a bite mark expert; he was the first member ever suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontology,” Carrington said.

“Regardless, prosecutors continued to use him as an expert for years and courts admitted his testimony. In the Stubbs and Vance case, West claimed to have observed marks on the victim’s skin that he determined were bite marks, and thereafter testified with certainty that Stubbs was the likely source of the alleged mark. But not only did prosecutors in this case retain him for his bite mark opinions – after receiving the FBI analysis of the surveillance video that undermined their case, they turned again to Dr. West and asked that he review the footage.”

Although West had no demonstrable expertise in the area, he nevertheless proceeded to analyze the videotape, Carrington said.

“Unlike the FBI, which used sophisticated technologies and methods to try and view the tape, Dr. West claimed to have used over-the-counter software to view what he described as Stubbs and Vance removing the victim’s body from their truck’s tool box and carrying her into a local hotel room, findings that supported the prosecution’s theory,” he said.

West’s testimony was admitted at trial. Stubbs’s and Vance’s attorneys remained unaware of the FBI’s findings until its release pursuant to the FOIA request many years after their convictions.

“Rather than focusing on the failure of justice in Stubbs and Vance’s case – and investigating other cases in which West had been involved – the Mississippi Attorney General announced that his office would re-try Stubbs and Vance,” said Valena Beety, former MIP staff attorney and now professor and innocence clinic director at University of West Virginia School of Law.

MIP and Coxwell filed motions to prevent that, arguing primarily that the State’s knowing use of false evidence – West’s testimony – should bar a re-prosecution on double jeopardy grounds. Included in their argument was evidence of the Humphreys County case.

After investigating old records from that case, MIP and Coxwell learned that after a vicious rape and multiple stab wound homicide, Hayne had performed the autopsy and noted “bite marks” on the victim’s torso. The primary suspect was the victim’s boyfriend with whom she had had prior physically violent incidents.

West was brought in to make dental comparisons and, based on his claimed matching, prosecutors indicted the boyfriend for capital murder. But prosecutors also sought DNA testing, and approximately a year later the results excluded the boyfriend, so they dismissed the indictment. He had spent over a year in jail, and the case hit a dead end.

At the hearing on the motion to preclude a second prosecution, the State resisted Stubbs’s and Vance’s attorneys argument that the presentation of West’s testimony polluted Stubbs’ and Vance’s trial. In the meantime, with the motions still pending, MIP and Coxwell decided to follow up on the Humphreys County case to buttress their claims against West – and the state’s use of him and continued refusal to acknowledge the damage it was doing.

“We had an obligation to our clients to take the information that was made available to us – and that was made available to the state, too, in our motion – to run down the final chapters of the Humphreys County case,” said Merrida Coxwell. “We wondered whether we’d cross paths with the state at some point, given the seriousness of that offense, but we never did.”

According to Carrington, “You’d think the state would want to get to the bottom of the (Humphreys County) case – not only for its claim that false evidence wasn’t employed in Stubbs and Vance’s later trial – but out of basic dignity to the victim and that community, which is still traumatized by the murder. In fact, the assistant attorney general handling the re-prosecution of Stubbs and Vance’s case is also in charge of investigating West’s old cases. Go figure.”

MIP attorneys went to Humphreys County and gathered what little evidence was available in a public case file. Thereafter, with the help of Circuit Court Clerk Timaka Jones and Deputy Clerk Sharon Neal, MIP was able to locate old crime lab numbers among the documents. MIP contacted the Mississippi Crime Lab, which retrieved its master file from archives. As luck would have it, the lab also tracked down the old biological evidence that had remained in its possession since 1997.

MIP then contacted Ken Winter, president of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, who called Humphreys County Sheriff J.D. Roseman. Roseman immediately asked the crime lab to perform additional testing.

Roseman’s interest was also personal because he had made a promise to Mabry’s mother.

“I promised her I wouldn’t forget about her daughter,” Roseman said. “I had pulled the case a few months ago to restart the work, and then this opportunity came up.”

In the intervening years since DNA testing had first been conducted on the evidence, technological advancement permit more sophisticated testing, as well as the ability to cross reference results with CODIS. When the tests produced a more detailed profile, crime lab personnel uploaded it into CODIS.

The effort yielded a positive match. Unfortunately, however, during the same period of years since Hayne’s and West’s work led law enforcement down the wrong path on Mabry’s murder, the true perpetrator remained at large and in 2002 committed another homicide. Locating him has been easy, though; he is serving a sentence for the 2002 murder in Parchman Penitentiary.

Like the Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer exonerations in Noxubee County in 2008, the Stubbs, Vance, and Humphreys County cases again demonstrate the depth and breadth that forensic malfeasance has played in dozens of Mississippi convictions, including those of several inmates sentenced to death, Carrington said.

Brooks was convicted in 1992 for the rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter. The child was taken from her home in the middle of the night, and her body was later found in a pond near her home. Her skin had slippage and other marks consistent with a child who had been killed and then dumped in a pond.

“At the time, Dr. West was collaborating with Dr. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner for hire who conducted nearly every autopsy for prosecutors in Mississippi – even though he flunked his board certification,” Carrington said. “For years Dr. Hayne regularly performed the vast majority of the state’s autopsies – several hundred more per year, in fact, than governing medical examiner boards recommend.”

In both the Brooks and Brewer cases, after finding what he suspected were pattern injuries or bite marks, Hayne brought in West for a second opinion. In 1995, Brewer was convicted of an identical crime that happened just 18 months after the one for which Brooks was convicted. Brewer’s girlfriend also had a 3-year-old daughter who was taken from her home in the middle of the night, raped and murdered. Her body was found in a creek near her home, with cuts that West said were bite marks from Brewer. The marks were actually caused by insects and animals in the creek.

After Brooks and Brewer were exonerated in 2008, attorneys from the Mississippi Innocence Project and the Innocence Project in New York called for an official audit of all of the cases that Hayne and West worked on together, as well as any that West may have worked on alone. To date, none of the cases have received any official scrutiny. In fact, according to a representative from the Mississippi Attorney General’s office, the Attorney General’s office thus far had only run “a Westlaw search” to find a list of West’s cases – an effort akin to a Google search, Carrington said.

Among these cases is that of Eddie Lee Howard, who was convicted for a 1992 murder in Columbus. Hayne performed the autopsy on the victim in Howard’s case. After the victim’s body had been buried three days, Hayne requested that it be exhumed for additional examination, explaining that he thought there might have been some bite marks on the body. Hayne’s autopsy report, issued before the initial burial, had not mentioned bite marks at all.

Hayne asked that this second examination be conducted by a forensic odontologist, and law enforcement enlisted West, who found what he claimed to be three bite marks on the victim’s body and determined that Howard’s dental impressions were consistent with them. At trial, West testified that he had “no doubt” that Howard had bitten the victim. The bite mark testimony was the only evidence conclusively linking Howard to the murder, and the jury found Howard guilty. He was sentenced to death and is awaiting an execution date.

The Mississippi Innocence Project is committed to providing the highest quality legal representation to its clients: Mississippi state prisoners serving significant periods of incarceration who have cognizable claims of wrongful conviction. In addition, the project seeks to identify and address systemic problems in the criminal justice system and to develop initiatives designed to raise public and political awareness of the prevalence, causes, and societal costs of wrongful convictions.

For more information on these cases, see the New York Times article “Questions Left for Mississippi Over Doctor’s Autopsies”  and the Huffington Post report “Solving Kathy Mabry’s Murder: Brutal 15-Year-Old Crime Highlights Decades-Long Mississippi Scandal”

For more information, contact Tucker Carrington or Carol Mockbee at 662-915-6000.