Leigh Stubbs, Mississippi Woman, Serving 44-Year Sentence Despite Discredited Testimony
Prosecutors in the U.S. often decry what is sometimes called the "CSI Effect." Movies and TV crime dramas like the popular "CSI" franchise on CBS can fill jurors' heads with unrealistic expectations about forensic science. But there's also a flip side to the CSI Effect: Because jurors are ready to believe the fantastical feats preformed by the wondrous forensics computers they see on screen, an unscrupulous prosecutor armed with an expert willing to offer otherwise dubious forensics on the witness stand can cause a lot of damage.
Witness Michael West. In the early 1990s, West, a dentist in Hattiesburg, Miss., was one of country's most prolific forensic odontologists, or bite mark specialists. West claimed to have perfected a new method of identifying bite marks on human skin, saying he could then match them to the teeth of a criminal suspect. Conveniently, West often testified that only he could perform this new analysis, which he called the "West Phenomenon."
Over the years, West broadened his areas of claimed expertise, testifying in at least 10 states as a wound pattern expert, a trace metals expert, a gun shot residue expert, a gunshot reconstruction expert, a crime scene investigator, a blood spatter expert, a "tool mark" expert, a fingernail scratch expert and an expert in "liquid splash patterns." He also got himself elected coroner of Forrest County, Miss. Though West was discredited in a number of national media reports beginning in the mid-1990s, he continued to testify in Mississippi courtrooms until just a few years ago.
Mississippi prosecutors no longer use West as a witness, but state Attorney General Jim Hood continues to defend convictions won because of his testimony. And Mississippi's appeals courts continue to uphold them. There are still dozens of people still in prison thanks either to West's testimony or his forensics reports, and Mississippi officials don't seem particularly concerned about them. One of those people is Leigh Stubbs, now 10 years into a 44-year prison sentence.
Stubbs may not be the most sympathetic of West's victims. She's a former drug addict, who on the night of her alleged crimes wasn't in the best of company. But witness accounts say Stubbs remained sober that night (she passed a drug test), and the evidence suggests she was the group's caretaker.
Stubbs' story begins in March 2000, just after she successfully completed treatment at a rehab center in Columbus, Miss. Stubbs checked out with Tammy Vance, a friend she met in rehab, and Kim Williams, the woman Vance and Stubbs would later be accused of assaulting.
After checking out, the three women drove to the home of Dickie Ervin, whom Williams had been dating. Vance and Stubbs then left Ervin's house. They were joined later by Williams, who had stolen some of Ervin's Oxycontin. Vance and Williams began drinking and taking the Oxycontin, while Stubbs drove and remained sober. The three eventually ended up at a Comfort Inn in Brookhaven, Miss. By that time, Vance and Williams had passed out. Stubbs checked the three of them in to the hotel. According to the clerk's testimony, Stubbs didn't appear drunk or high, only tired.
By Stubbs' account, she then helped the other two women into the room, and the three went to sleep. The next day, Stubbs and Vance went to get some food, leaving Williams in the room, still sleeping. Later the same afternoon, Stubbs and Vance noticed that Williams still hadn't woken up, and was having trouble breathing. They called an ambulance, and Williams was admitted and treated for a drug overdose. She fell into a coma. At the hospital, doctors found a number of injuries on Williams, including swollen breasts, a swollen and bruised vagina, and marks across her buttocks. The attending physician believed the injuries appeared to be two to four days old. A rape kit was inconclusive. Another doctor later also found an injury to Williams' head. A few days later, the office of then-District Attorney Dunn Lampton called in Michael West to examine Williams' injuries. (Williams, who has since recovered, says she doesn't remember who attacked her.)
Lampton chose to bring in Michael West as a witness even though West's credibility problems were already well-known. West had previously claimed to be able to trace the bite marks in the bread of a half-eaten bologna sandwich to the prosecution's chief suspect; he had compared his own genius to the musical genius of Itzhak Perlman; and he once testified in court that his own error rate was merely "something less than my savior, Jesus Christ." West had been exposed in articles in both the American Bar Association Law Journal and the National Law Review, and he was suspended and later resigned from the American Board of Forensic Odontologists. But Lampton ignored West's history and called in his expertise in yet another criminal case.
In a routine he had by then repeated dozens of times with law enforcement officials across Mississippi and Louisiana, West claimed to find human bite marks on Williams that other doctors had overlooked. He then ordered dental impressions taken from Stubbs, Vance and two other suspects. But by the time the plaster impressions arrived, Williams' alleged wounds had faded. So West performed his analysis based on photographs he had taken of his findings days earlier. He would later testify that it was a "probability" that a bite mark he claimed to have found on William's thigh was made by Stubbs. (In a rare display of humility, West did concede that he wasn't "100 percent" certain of the match -- only that it was likely.)
MICHAEL WEST, 'VIDEO ENHANCEMENT EXPERT'
From there, the case against Leigh Stubbs only grew more bizarre. On the night of the alleged attack, the Comfort Inn had a security camera camera trained on its parking lot. Lampton sent the grainy VHS tape, which was taken after nightfall, to the FBI for analysis. The agency's report found nothing incriminating in the footage. It repeatedly points out that the quality of the recording is insufficient to tell for certain how many people are depicted in the video, much less determine their identities or what sort of clothing they're wearing. The report also makes no mention of anyone moving a "body."
Though he was obligated by law to do so, Lampton never turned that FBI report over to Stubbs' defense attorney. But he sent the video to Michael West, who, now donning his "video enhancement expert" cap, claimed he was able to enhance the video and capture still photos from those enhancements incriminating Stubbs and Vance for Williams' injuries.
The ability to "enhance" security camera footage beyond its resolution is a Hollywood-perpetuated myth so common that mocking it has become a running pop culture meme. Yet West testified in court that he could do exactly that. West and Lampton both knew that the FBI itself was unable to glean anything useful from the video, according to this correspondence, in which West references the FBI's examination of the tape. They kept that correspondence from the defense and the jury.