JACKSON, Miss. — The Mississippi Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a man’s three murder convictions, one of which resulted in a death sentence, in another case that raises questions about the state’s use of questionable bite mark evidence.
Five justices voted to vacate the convictions of Sherwood Brown, who was convicted in the 1993 slayings of 82-year-old Betty Boyd, 48-year-old Verline Boyd and 13-year-old Evangela Boyd. Brown was sentenced to death for the murder of Evangela, the daughter of Verline and granddaughter of Betty, because jurors found he had killed her while committing felony child abuse.
The case was sent back to DeSoto County for a new trial. District Attorney John Champion said in a phone interview he hasn’t read the ruling and doesn’t know if he will prosecute again. Relatives of the Boyds have over the years maintained their belief that Brown was correctly convicted.
The Boyds were found hacked to death in Betty Boyd’s house in the rural Eudora community, in a case that longtime county officials said was the most horrific they’d ever seen. A trail of bloody footprints led down a path toward other houses, including one where Brown lived. When police arrested him, he was wearing sneakers that matched the pattern of two partial bloody shoeprints found at the house and tested positive for blood on the bottom.
DNA testing wasn’t available at the time but was conducted after the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead in 2012. It shows that the blood on the bottom of Brown’s shoe belonged to a male, and that all the blood on the floor of the house was female.
Prosecutors also pointed to a cut on Brown’s wrist, claiming Evangela Boyd had bit him. Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist who has testified in many Mississippi criminal cases, determined the cut matched Boyd’s teeth, a conclusion echoed by a second forensic odontologist at the trial.
But police had swabbed the inside of Evangela Boyd’s mouth. Tucker Carrington, a lawyer for the Mississippi Innocence Project, said that while DNA tests now show there was male DNA in Boyd’s mouth, it doesn’t match Brown’s DNA. Carrington said this result is more evidence supporting a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences that found bite marks could not be used to reliably identify an individual.
Carrington, who’s also challenging West’s analysis in an attempt to overturn a death penalty case in Columbus, calls West’s work “nonsense.” The state Supreme Court sent the Columbus case back for a hearing on fresh evidence, but did not disown West’s work wholesale, and also avoided doing so Thursday.
“The relief afforded herein is extraordinary and extremely rare … ,” Associate Justice Josiah Coleman wrote for the court, “and we limit the relief we today grant to the facts of the above-styled case.”
Three justices voted Thursday for the lesser relief of a new hearing without overturning the convictions. In 2015, the high court denied a separate appeal from Brown claiming he shouldn’t be executed because he was mentally disabled.
Prosecutors also had a witness who testified that Brown told him he committed the murders, but Carrington said the witness is unreliable because he was trying to bargain for lighter penalties on another crime. The state has defended the witness testimony.
Carrington said Brown’s parents told investigators their son was at home with them at the time of the murders. Carrington said fingerprints, a palm print and hair also found at the scene don’t match Brown.
“I don’t know how they can retry him on this,” Carrington said.