On 'The Innocence Files,' Discredited Dentist Michael West Sticks to His Guns

Amber Garrett - Author

Apr. 15 2020, Updated 1:31 p.m. ET

michael west innocence files bite marks
Source: Netflix

The new Netflix docuseries The Innocence Files dives into the work conducted by The Innocence Project, a national nonprofit that works to overturn wrongful convictions due to false testimony, faulty evidence, or trial misconduct. 

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Many incarcerated Americans have been convicted based on forensic evidence and expert testimony later proven to be based on bad science. One of the most vocal and unapologetic forensic scientists highlighted in the series is Dr. Michael West, a dentist and self-professed bite marks expert who has been widely discredited.

Where is Michael West now? Does he still practice?

Dr. West practices general dentistry in Hattiesburg, Miss., as he has for the past several decades. He rose to prominence in the 1980s as a self-proclaimed forensic dentistry expert, despite having no formal training in forensic science, based on bite mark analysis techniques he claimed to have invented and which could not be conducted by anyone else. 

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michael west bite mark evidence
Source: Netflix

One of the central tenets of any science is that the methods and results should be reproducible, so the idea that only one dentist would be able to conduct this analysis and that he would not be able to impart that expertise to another dentist or forensic scientist is pretty fishy. 

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Yet, testimony given by Michael West over the course of decades has put away "dozens" of people, and many of the decisions made based on his evidence have been upheld in court even when many of those convicted on similar evidence were later exonerated with DNA evidence.

michael west courtroom sketch
Source: Netflix
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And Dr. West didn't just claim expertise on teeth, which as a DDS he could lay claim to. He also claimed to be an expert witness on subjects as far ranging as "trace metals" and "video enhancement" despite having no educational or vocational background in those fields. 

How many people were wrongly convicted by Michael West's testimony?

It's uncertain how many people are currently serving or have served time for crimes they did not commit because of testimony and evidence Michael West presented in court over the years. 

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However, at least two men who were put away at least partially based on West's claims, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were exonerated by DNA evidence after serving a combined 30 years for the rape and murder of little girls. Brewer received a death sentence and even had his death warrant issued at one point, so he was very nearly put to death for a crime he didn't commit. 

bite mark evidence michael west
Source: Netflix
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The real murderer in both cases, Justin Albert Johnson, was even a suspect at one point, and Dr. West ruled him out, saying his teeth didn't match wounds on the victim which he claimed were bite marks. It's not even certain the marks were bites at all; in his confession, Johnson never mentioned biting his victims despite owning up to the rapes and murders.

But West's testimony likely had wider reach beyond the trials he personally participated in, because the junk science can have a cascading effect wherein other dubious experts may make unscientific testimony based on the precedent set by people like West. One of the biggest challenges the Innocence Project faces is in getting judges to acknowledge when key incriminating evidence has been proven unscientific.

Watch The Innocence Files on Netflix to learn more about the work The Innocence Project is doing to correct the wrongs caused by years of bad forensic science.

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