Thursday, January 17, 2013

Solving Kathy Mabry's Murder: Brutal 15-Year-Old Crime Highlights Decades-Long Mississippi Scandal

BELZONI, Miss. -- J.D. "Bubba" Roseman, the first black sheriff of Humphreys County, is a convivial man. In his office and in casual conversations on the street in this town of 2,200, he engages people quickly and easily, inquiring about a son on the football team, a niece in college or a grandmother in the hospital. He talks loud and fast, always smiling, and works a deep, infectious laugh into just about every conversation.

But when Roseman, 57, talks about Kathy Mabry, the mirth drains from his face. His brow straightens. He speaks softly. He pauses from time to time to swallow the catch that latches onto his words, and his eyes sometimes well up. It's an unexpected thing from a stout man wearing a gun.

Mabry was murdered here in 1997 at the age of 39. This part of America once produced murder ballads about brutal crimes like this one -- blues greats like Pinetop Perkins, Elmore James and Sonny Boy Williamson have all called Humphreys County home.

Kathy Mabry's killer raped her, then slashed her face, head and throat with a rusty razor blade. She was left to bleed to death on the floor of a vacant house. "I think about that case every day," Roseman says. "I told Kathy's momma I wouldn't get an honest night's rest until we got the man who did this."

Roseman was the Belzoni police chief back then, the first black man elected to that position as well. His election to both positions shows just how much the region has changed over the past half century. In what may have been the first assassination of the civil rights era, the Rev. George Lee was murdered here in 1955 while registering blacks to vote. In those years, white citizen councils beat civil rights volunteers with such frequency that the town earned the nickname "Bloody Belzoni."

Today, Humphreys (population: about 9,000) is the seventh-poorest county in America's poorest state. The poverty rate here approaches 40 percent. But it's also a close-knit community, where families go back several generations or more. Violent crime is rare. The county saw all of one murder in 2012. "It just doesn't happen that often here," Roseman says.

Mabry's murder stunned people here in part because it was so unexpected, but also because it was so unspeakably vicious. "She came from a quiet, respected family," Roseman says. "They're well-liked. Most folks around here hadn't ever experienced that kind of murder. So it shook the town. It's still shaking the town."

The case went unsolved for 15 years, until December, after a casual courtroom conversation led lawyers from the Mississippi Innocence Project to investigate it. That two attorneys for an organization better known for getting the wrongly convicted out of prison would take it upon themselves to solve a cold case is remarkable enough. Their search covered the state, from Columbus in the northeast, to Oxford in the northwest, to the crime lab in Jackson, to a dusty attic in the Humphreys County courthouse, deep in the belly of the Delta.

The reason they felt compelled to act is part of a larger scandal currently unfolding in Mississippi. The original police investigation into Mabry's murder hinged on the forensic analysis of Steven Hayne, a longtime Mississippi medical examiner, and Michael West, a dentist and self-proclaimed bite-mark expert. Hayne was a doctor in private practice who at the time performed nearly all of the state's autopsies. West was one of his frequent collaborators. The two men have been at the heart of the Mississippi death investigation system for two decades. West has testified in dozens of cases, Hayne in thousands, including a number of death penalty cases.

Media investigations over the years, however, including my own for The Huffington Post and Reason magazine, have revealed that both Hayne and West have contributed critical evidence that led to the convictions of people who were later exonerated, and routinely and flagrantly flouted the ethical and professional standards of their respective fields. West, for example, once claimed he could match the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich found at a murder scene to the teeth of the prime suspect. In a more recent case, Hayne claimed the bullet wounds in a murder victim showed that two people held the gun when it was fired, not one. In the Mabry case, West used bite-mark analysis to nab an innocent man for Mabry's murder. That man spent nearly a year in jail. But the Mabry story also shows that the victims in this scandal include not just the wrongly accused, but the families of the victims, the future victims of the actual perpetrators, public officials like Roseman, and even entire towns.

Mississippi officials have thus far resisted calls for a thorough review of Hayne and West's work. In particular, the Mississippi Supreme Court has shown little concern over the possibility that Hayne and West may have put an untold number of innocents behind the razor wire at Parchman penitentiary. Neither has Attorney General Jim Hood, whose office continues to defend convictions won primarily on the testimony one or both of the men have given on the witness stand. To concede there's a problem would implicate many state officials who used the two men during tenures as prosecutors. It would also open hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases to review.

Tucker Carrington, the director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, says he and his colleague Will McIntosh decided to pursue Mabry's killer themselves after they attempted to bring the case to the attention of the prosecutor in Humphreys County, and then to Hood's office, and received no response from either.

"When you take on a case and it reveals a glaring injustice like this -- something that could easily be taken care of if someone would just give it some attention -- you can't just turn a blind eye to that," Carrington says. "In the end, I guess we saw this through because no one else would."

The defensiveness and nonchalance of Mississippi officials over the possible wrongful conviction, imprisonment and execution of innocent people is troubling enough. (Neither Hayne nor Hood's office responded to an interview request. The Huffington Post was unable to reach West.) But the Mabry case shows that the harm Hayne and West have done goes deeper. The same problems that allowed for the conviction of innocents have also left brutal crimes unsolved, leaving those affected to grieve and worry, with little hope of closure.

"Good people live here. They deserve to feel safe," Roseman says. "I took it personal."

And there's another corresponding harm when the innocent are implicated: The guilty often go free. Indeed, Mabry's murderer went on to kill again.

Julie Mae Wilson last saw her daughter around 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 22, 1997. "She had just cooked up some fish for the boys and said she had to go out for a while," Wilson says. "She said she'd be back in an hour or so. I never did see her again."

Wilson has lived in Humphreys County all her life. The drive down historic Highway 61 from Memphis, Tenn., to her hometown of Isola slices through the sort of harsh, agrestic beauty for which the Mississippi Delta is known. There are scenes of crushing poverty, gooey marshes and quiet bucolic landscapes. The route south backtracks the great black migration of the middle of the 20th century, when Delta sharecroppers traveled upriver in pursuit of better lives in Detroit, Indianapolis and Chicago. Like its neighbors, Humphreys County lost a good chunk of its population then; it still grows smaller with each census.

Wilson and her husband, now deceased, spent most of their working lives in cotton fields. The two had eight children, including Mabry, and led the typically hardscrabble lives of black farm workers in the civil rights era.

Today cotton has given way to a new business in the area. Catfish -- raising them, processing them, eating them and celebrating them. Two-thirds of America's farm-raised catfish is grown within an hour of Belzoni. It's home to the World Catfish Festival and the "Miss Catfish" pageant. At the moment, the downtown features a collection of ceramic flatheads painted in different getups -- overalls, fur coats, top hats -- for "Catfish on Parade," a down-home take on Chicago's popular "Bulls on Parade" public art exhibit. There's also hope that the new "Delta Blues Trail" will bring tourists down from the casinos in Tunica to explore the legacy of the music borne of the area's troubled past.

But the residents of the county, now about 70 percent black, still continue to struggle economically. All of Wilson's children have left the area and now live in Chicago with their families. She had hoped for better things for Mabry, too. She graduated from high school and had started college, but picked up a drug habit soon after.

"Kathy came up when things started to get better around here," Wilson says. "We had spent a lot of years chopping cotton. But I was working [as a maid] in houses by then. My husband was driving tractors," Wilson says. "But she didn't last long in college before she got into the drugs. Wasn't long before she was back at home."

Mabry battled her crack addiction for the rest of her life. She had some periods of sobriety. She married and had two sons. But her struggle with addiction eventually dissolved the marriage and dashed any hope of going back to school. She fell into a series of abusive relationships. She and her boys moved in with her mother in Isola, the tiny town of 900 people about 10 miles south of Belzoni.

The last of those abusive relationships was with James Earl Gates, who was 48 at the time of the murder. "He was no good," Wilson says. "Broke her arm once. They were in some kind of love, but he had a short, short temper. He would come in here, into my home, and take over like he was the man of the house. I'm just an old lady. Kathy was tiny. The boys were young. There wasn't much we could do about him."

Mabry didn't come home after making dinner for her boys that Saturday night in 1997. When she hadn't returned by late Sunday morning, Wilson began to worry. She knew about her daughter's drug problem, but Mabry had of late managed to handle her addiction while still taking care of her boys and working at the Confish catfish plant. She wasn't one to disappear without a phone call.

On Monday morning, Gates called Wilson to ask if she knew where Mabry was. He'd called Mabry several times over the weekend, he said, and she hadn't picked up. Until then Wilson had worried, but just assumed her daughter had been with Gates. Now she was panicked. She called Roseman and asked him to look for Mabry in Belzoni. Roseman checked around town. No one had seen her.

At 5:30 the following morning, a truck driver named Junior Mitchell pulled his rig up to his house, to fill up from the diesel pump in the front yard. Mitchell had moved out of the place several months earlier to live with his girlfriend, but still came by from time to time to get gas and check on his property. The house had been burglarized several times since he left, and on more than a few occasions he had shooed away drug addicts he found squatting inside. The vacated building had become a gathering spot for them over the winter months.

That morning, March 25, Mitchell noticed that a wall panel under the carport had been kicked out. When he approached the front door to investigate, he saw a trail of blood. He followed the trail inside and discovered Mabry's body.

The murder set the entire community on edge. "You might see someone getting shot after an argument or something, but even that is really rare," says Dim Pyle, the mayor of Isola. "Nobody had ever seen anything like this. Because of the closeness everybody had with Kathy's family, the whole town, both towns, well, we were all just devastated."

The county coroner, Roseman and John Allen Jones, who was the Humphreys County sheriff at the time, arrived at the crime scene about an hour after Mitchell found Mabry's body. Jones called the Mississippi Highway Patrol, who sent an investigator and two inspectors from the state crime lab. They began interviewing suspects that afternoon.

Mabry's body was sent to Steven Hayne for an autopsy. Though he held no official state position, and was never board certified in forensic pathology, between the early 1990s and the late 2000s, Hayne performed 80-90 percent of the autopsies in Mississippi, according to his own testimony in trials and depositions. That amounted to an astonishing 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies per year.

The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends that a single doctor perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. The organization refuses to certify any lab where an individual doctor performs more than 325 per year. Hayne's workload could result in some odd autopsy reports. According to a complaint filed by the Mississippi Innocence Project, in one case Hayne included in his report the weight of a man's spleen, and made comments about its appearance. The problem: The man's spleen had been removed four years before he died. In an autopsy on a drowned infant, Hayne noted the weight of each of the child's kidneys, even though one of them had previously been removed. In another murder case, Hayne noted in his report that he had removed and examined the decedent's ovaries and uterus. The victim was a man.

Mississippi's autopsy system had long been loaded with bad incentives. Because prosecutors and the elected coroners assigned autopsies on a case-by-case basis, doctors had a strong incentive to tell them what they wanted to hear so that they could benefit from future referrals. Sometimes, critics say, pleasing prosecutors meant providing them with findings that would lead to convictions. Other times, it might mean presenting conclusions that cleared a police officer or prison guard when a suspect or inmate died under suspicious circumstances.

The state has made some progress in recent years, requiring that anyone who performs an autopsy for prosecutors be board certified, and Mississippi now has a credentialed state medical examiner. But the damage from the old system is ongoing. It was a system almost designed for abuse. "If hadn't been Hayne," the Innocence Project's Carrington says, "it would have been someone else."

Hayne performed most of his autopsies not in the state-of-the-art crime lab in Jackson, but in the basement of a funeral home owned by longtime Rankin County Coroner Jimmy Roberts. One former state official who had visited Hayne's operation on several occasions likened it to "a sausage factory." Another said that in 2006 he watched Hayne and his assistants eat pork sandwiches and smoke cigars while cutting up multiple bodies at once. For much of his career he held two full-time jobs during the day. So he did most of his autopsies at night, giving his practice a sort of macabre mystique.

One person often present at those all-night autopsy sessions was Michael West, a dentist in Hattiesburg. West often assisted with Hayne's autopsies, and sometimes videotaped them. The two men also wrote articles together, and by the early 1990s, West had established a reputation as either an ingenious forensic specialist far ahead of his time, or a charlatan, depending on whom you asked.

The police investigating Mabry's murder rounded up about half a dozen men who'd been in or near the vacant house around the time of her death and held them for questioning. Roseman and Jones initially focused on a man named Douglas Myers, an addict who'd been in the house and had a fresh scratch on his face the afternoon of the investigation.

"He couldn't give us a good answer for that scratch," Roseman says. But the state officials seemed interested in James Earl Gates, especially after learning that he had beaten Mabry before.

Despite the history of abuse between Gates and Mabry, Roseman never liked Gates for the murder. "If she had been choked, or had hit her head, if she'd been dumped out in a field somewhere, I'd say, 'Okay, that makes sense.' I could see putting that on Gates. Maybe he'd lost his temper again. Maybe he got too rough with her," Roseman says. "But when a man who loves a woman, when he's sleeping with the same woman, he doesn't do her body like that. A mean man will hit a woman he loves, but he won't cut up her face. You just don't see that."

Roseman also says Gates wasn't defensive about Mabry's death. In fact, he seemed crushed. "He showed real strong emotion when he heard she'd been killed," Roseman says. "He didn't try to give us an alibi. We had to ask him where he was. I don't think he even considered the possibility that he could have been a suspect."

He'd soon become the only suspect. During the autopsy, Hayne claimed to have found bite marks on Mabry's body. As he had done in numerous other cases, Hayne then called in West, who claimed to have pioneered a new way of identifying bite marks in human skin, then matching them to one person, to the exclusion of anyone else. He called it "The West Phenomenon."

West claimed that only he could perform this method of analysis, which involved yellow goggles and ultraviolet light. He said his method couldn't be tested by anyone else. It couldn't be photographed or recorded on video to be scrutinized by other forensic specialists. At various points in the 1990s, West and the prosecutors who used him in their cases compared his bite-mark genius to musician Itzhak Perlman, Galileo and Jesus Christ. The National Academy of Sciences, however, does not consider bite-mark analysis to be credible as evidence in a trial. And even within the already questionable field of bite-mark analysis, concerns about West were already mounting.

On March 27, 1997, West confirmed that what Hayne had found were indeed bite marks. He took photos of them, then drove to Belzoni to make plaster molds of the suspects' teeth. Using only the plaster molds and the photos of the bite marks he'd brought with him, West excluded all of the men then in custody. For dramatic effect, he used the same line each time: "Sheriff, this is not your man."

The police then escorted West to the home of James Earl Gates, who also allowed West to make an impression of his teeth. West then compared Gates' mold to the photos. In his report, Jones wrote that West next "pointed out to me the similarities between the bite marks and impressions. He informed me that this was a possible suspect."

West then drove back to the morgue to compare the mold of Gates' teeth directly to the marks on Mabry's body. At 12:45 a.m., West called Jones. "This is your man," West said.

On April 1, 1997, James Earl Gates was arrested for the rape and murder of Kathy Mabry. He was booked at the Humphreys County Jail.


By 1997, Mississippi officials should have known that West was less than credible. He had already been the subject of unflattering profiles in the ABA Journal and the National Law Journal. He had also been suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontologists for testifying beyond his expertise, including in the infamous bologna sandwich case. In that case, the defendant was convicted, but the conviction was later overturned when West admitted to disposing of the sandwich after studying it. He said that he had thrown the evidence away because, since no other forensic analyst was qualified to replicate his methods, the sandwich was no longer necessary.

Yet West remained a favorite in Mississippi courtrooms, and among law enforcement officials and prosecutors. In 1999, the Mississippi Supreme Court considered the appeal of Kennedy Brewer, who was on death row for the rape and murder of 3-year-old Christine Jackson six years earlier.

As in the Mabry case, Hayne had claimed to find bite marks on the victim's body. He again called in West, who again matched the marks to the dentition of the chief suspect, in this case Brewer, the boyfriend of the girl's mother. In light of the continuing revelations about West, Brewer's attorneys asked the court to overturn the conviction and death sentence, and to suppress West's testimony. In 1997 the court refused. A majority of the justices still believed West possessed the "knowledge, skill, experience, training and education necessary to qualify as an expert in forensic odontology."

West can sound convincing to juries and to those without scientific training. "I should have gone with my instincts about Gates," Roseman says. "But when West showed me the video where he matched the marks, he made a good case. I just thought, this is what the man does every day. All these judges and crime lab folks trust him. He sounds scientific. Who am I to say he's wrong?"
In fact, in Mabry's case West may not have been wrong, at least about the bite marks. Mabry's previous paramours told Roseman that she enjoyed rough sex, including biting. Gates himself admitted to having bitten his girlfriend a few weeks before she died. That, of course, doesn't validate West's methods. Gates may have bitten Mabry, but there was no evidence he bit her on the day she died (indeed, a competent analyst should have recognized that the marks were weeks old). And old bite marks from her boyfriend certainly weren't evidence that he killed her.

In October 1997, Gates' attorney asked Humphreys County Circuit Court Judge Jannie Lewis to suppress West's testimony, citing the mounting questions about West's credibility, and about bite mark evidence in general. Lewis ruled that there was no reason to doubt West's credibility, but he did give Gates funding to hire his own expert to examine the alleged bite marks.

A few months later, District Attorney James Powell sent the scrapings taken from under Mabry's fingernails to the state crime lab in Jackson for DNA testing. At that time, DNA testing was more primitive. A test could exclude someone as a suspect, but couldn't yet match a suspect to biological evidence the way the technology can today.

The tests came back a few weeks later: Kathy Mabry had scratched someone in a frantic fight to save her life, but it wasn't James Earl Gates. In fact, it wasn't any of the men the police had rounded up as suspects -- not even Douglas Myles, the man with the scratch on his cheek.

On Jan. 21, 1998, Powell dismissed the murder charge against Gates. It was now 10 months after the crime. Memories had faded. Some witnesses had left town. And Roseman and Jones were back to square one.

Julie Mae Wilson was crushed when she heard the news. Her daughter's killer was still on the loose, and with so much time now passed, it seemed unlikely he'd ever be found. But she was also terrified. Gates may not have murdered Mabry, but he had shown he could be a violent man. He was now free, likely angry, and almost certainly knew that Wilson had told the police he beat her daughter, which likely made him a suspect in the first place. Roseman and Jones told Gates he wasn't to go anywhere near Wilson, her home, or Mabry's boys without Wilson's permission.

"We didn't see him much after that," Wilson says. "But those first few weeks, we were awful scared."

In the years that followed, Hayne and West continued to apply their questionable brand of forensic analysis to other cases. At the same time, their work also began to attract more scrutiny, though mostly from outside the state.

In 2001, Arizona defense attorney Christopher Plourd tricked West into matching crime scene photos of a bite mark left on a murder victim's breast to a dental mold taken from the mouth of the attorney's own private investigator, who had nothing to do with the crime. After accepting a retainer fee, West confidently sent back a 30-minute video in which he methodically explained how the bite marks in the photos could only have come from the attorney's "suspect."

It was the best evidence to date that West is a charlatan. And yet Mississippi prosecutors still defended convictions won on West's testimony, and Mississippi judges still upheld them.

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