In this Friday, Feb. 15, 2008 file photo shows Levon Brooks, left, hugging a friend, moments after a circuit court judge released him pending a new trial for the murder of a child in Macon, Miss. Brooks was convicted in 1992 of raping and killing his ex-girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter and sentenced to life in prison. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, file)
At least 24 men convicted or arrested based largely on murky bite-mark evidence have been exonerated by DNA testing, had charges dropped or otherwise been proved not guilty. Many spent more than a decade in prison, and one man was behind bars for more than 23 years before he was exonerated. One man is still in prison as an appeal works through the courts. The Associated Press compiled this list of some of the more notable cases using court records, news reports and information from the Innocence Project.
LEVON BROOKS AND KENNEDY BREWER
Brooks, of Brooksville, Miss., was convicted in 1992 of raping and killing his ex-girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter and sentenced to life in prison after Dr. Michael West testified marks on the girl were human bites that matched Brooks.
In a separate but similar case, Brewer, also of Brooksville, was convicted in 1995 of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter and sentenced to death after West testified marks on her body matched Brewer’s teeth.
Later, DNA testing in both cases matched a man named Justin Albert Johnson, who confessed. Johnson, who had been an initial suspect in the Brooks case and had a history of raping women and girls, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, while the bite marks on both girls later were determined to be more likely made by crawfish and insects in water where their bodies were dumped.
Although Brewer’s conviction was vacated while he awaited execution in 2001, he was held in prison until 2008 because the prosecutor said he was going to retry him. Brooks also wasn’t released until 2008.
West, of Hattiesburg, defended his testimony by saying that he never told jurors that Brooks and Brewer were the killers, only that they bit the children, and that he’s not responsible for juries who found them guilty. He told the AP that DNA has made bite-mark analysis almost obsolete and that he no longer practices it.
DANE CLARK COLLINS
Collins, of Santa Fe, N.M., was arrested in 1989 and imprisoned for five months in the rape and killing of his 22-year-old stepdaughter Tracy Barker, even though a condition prevented Collins from producing sperm, which was found on Barker’s body.
A forensic dentist had concluded that a mark on Barker’s neck was a bite mark and matched Collins, and prosecutors vowed to seek the death penalty.
Collins was declared innocent after his attorneys revealed his medical condition and argued that the mark on Barker’s neck was left when she was strangled and was not a bite mark.
Fifteen years later, the sperm found on Barker was entered into a national database not available at the time of the crime and matched Chris McClendon, a former Santa Fe ski instructor who had been convicted in a separate 1999 case of kidnapping and raping a 24-year-old Santa Fe waitress. McClendon pleaded no contest in Barker’s killing to avoid the death penalty and is serving multiple life sentences.
Jackson, of Natchez, Miss., was convicted in 1989 of rape in Marrero, La., 180 miles from where he lived, after the victim identified him in a lineup and a forensic dentist testified that bite marks matched Jackson’s teeth, even though Jackson’s brother, Milton Jackson, confessed to the rape just days after the crime and Jackson lived far away. Police focused on Willie Jackson because one of his bank statements was found at the crime scene.
DNA testing later showed Jackson was innocent, and he was exonerated in 2006.
A different forensic dentist later found the earlier bite-mark analysis was incorrect, and further DNA testing pointed to Milton Jackson, who was serving a life sentence for an unrelated rape.
Krone, of Phoenix, was convicted in 1992 and again in 1996 after winning a new trial in the death of a Phoenix bartender who was found naked and stabbed in the men’s restroom of her workplace. He spent a decade in prison, three of them on death row. Dr. Ray Rawson, a forensic dentist who is still on the American Board of Forensic Odontology, testified at both trials that bite marks on the bartender’s breast and neck could have come only from Krone.
The jury at Krone’s second trial found him guilty despite three top forensic dentists who testified for the defense that Krone couldn’t have made the bite mark.
In 2002, DNA testing matched a different man and proved Krone’s innocence, and Krone was released. Rawson did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
JEFF MOLDOWAN AND ROBERT CRISTINI
Moldowan and Cristini, of Warren, Mich., were convicted in 1991 in the kidnapping, brutal rape and attempted murder of Moldowan’s ex-girlfriend in Warren, even though Moldowan and Cristini had alibis. A jury found them guilty after forensic dentists certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology, Drs. Allan Warnick and Pamela Hammel, testified that bite marks on the woman had to have come from Moldowan and Cristini.
The victim identified Moldowan as one of her attackers, but his defense attorney argued that the rape was committed by drug dealers seeking revenge for lost payment of cocaine, and that she falsely accused Moldowan to cover up connections to drug dealers.
Cristini was sentenced to 44 to 60 years in prison, and Moldowan was sentenced to four terms of 60 to 90 years. The bite-mark testimony was later discredited, leading to retrials in 2003 and 2004, at which both Moldowan and Cristini were acquitted.
Richards, of San Bernardino, Calif., was convicted in 1997 of murder in his wife’s 1993 death after two trials resulted in hung juries. Drs. Norman Sperber and Gregory Golden, two top forensic dentists certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology, testified during the trial, with Sperber testifying for the prosecution that a suspected bite mark on Pam Richards’ body was consistent with a rare abnormality in William Richards’ teeth and that only about 2 percent of the population had such unique teeth. Golden testified for the defense that he thought the bite-mark evidence was inconclusive and should be disregarded.
During an evidentiary hearing in 2009, Sperber recanted his testimony and said he had been wrong. Both Sperber and Golden testified at the hearing that current bite-mark science excluded Richards from making the mark, and the California Innocence Project presented evidence that male DNA found on two rocks used to beat Pam Richards did not match William Richards.
The presiding judge reversed Richards’ conviction, finding that “the evidence before me points unerringly to innocence.” But prosecutors appealed the ruling, and the California Court of Appeals ordered Richards to remain imprisoned pending the outcome of the appeal. Richards’ attorneys say he has cancer and could die in prison waiting for his case to be resolved.
Golden recently told the AP that at the time of the trial, he had reservations about Sperber’s testimony, but that he commended him for later trying to right his wrong.
Golden said he knew at the time that a photo of the bite mark in the case was distorted and unreliable, and now he’s not even sure it was made by a human.
Sperber’s home number does not accept messages, and his email box was full.
CALVIN WASHINGTON AND JOE SIDNEY WILLIAMS
Washington and Williams, of Waco, Texas, were arrested after being found with Juanita White’s car the day after her death, convicted in 1987 and sentenced to life in prison in the woman’s rape, robbery and murder. A forensic dentist certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology, Dr. Homer Campbell, now dead, testified a suspected bite mark was consistent with Williams’ teeth, though not to a reasonable degree of certainty.
Waco police Officer Jan Price gave a sworn statement in 1991 that she believed Washington and Williams were innocent and the victims of another officer’s improper conduct. She also identified a more likely suspect, Benny Carroll, who had committed a similar crime in White’s neighborhood. Semen taken from White’s body later excluded Washington and Williams but matched Carroll, who had killed himself in 1990.
Williams was released from prison in 1993, and Washington was released in 2001.