Michigan Man In Prison On Bogus 'Bite Mark' Evidence Exonerated After 31 Years
Gilbert Lee Poole, Michigan Department of Corrections photo.

Gilbert Lee Poole will be getting out of prison after Michigan's Conviction Integrity Unit cleared him of a murder he didn't commit. Poole had been convicted and sentenced to life in 1989, largely on the basis of "bite mark analysis," a once common form of evidence that in recent years has been debunked and branded as pseudoscience. DNA evidence proved that Poole was not the killer.

It's the first exoneration brought about by the unit, which was formed two years ago by state Attorney General Dana Nessel, who praised the team's work.

When we established this team in 2019, we made a commitment to ensuring those convicted of state crimes are in fact guilty while also providing justice to those wrongfully imprisoned.

Nessel also thanked the Western Michigan University-Cooley Law School Innocence Project, which had worked on the case for 10 years.

Here's an idea for a new series, Dick Wolfe. "Law and Order: Criminal Integrity Unit." It could show how people get wrongly convicted, and then after decades in prison, some of them are finally proven innocent. DUN DUN!

Poole was convicted and sentenced to life without parole in the 1988 killing of Robert Mejia in Pontiac, Michigan. We'll let the Detroit News do the summarizing here:

Mejia, whose body was found in a Pontiac park, had eight stab wounds to the face, neck and upper chest and other injuries consistent with having been in a fight, an autopsy determined. [...]

The killing went unsolved for five months before Poole's then-girlfriend told North Carolina authorities he had confessed to killing a man he had met in a bar. The girlfriend said she and Poole had earlier argued over money and he left saying he was "going out to get some money." He returned several hours later scratched up and red-faced, the girlfriend told authorities.

Nessel's office said that at trial, much of the case against Poole relied on "bite mark analysis," a now-discredited forensic technique. An expert witness testified that marks on Mejia's body definitely matched Poole's teeth. But as Law & Crime points out, the method is just plain not scientifically valid.

In 2009, some two decades into Poole's sentence, the National Academy of Sciences released a groundbreaking report titled "Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward," which found "a high percentage of false positive matches of bite marks using controlled comparison studies."

"No thorough study has been conducted of large populations to establish the uniqueness of bite marks; theoretical studies promoting the uniqueness theory include more teeth than are seen in most bite marks submitted for comparison," the report states. "There is no central repository of bite marks and patterns."

The Innocence Project is even more blunt about the technique's lack of scientific rigor, noting that "Bite mark 'experts' cannot even agree on the answer to the most basic of questions: Was this injury caused by teeth?" At least 26 people convicted based on bite mark "evidence" had been exonerated by other evidence when that article was published in April 2020, although "there are likely many more innocent people behind bars because of the use of this discredited science."

During yesterday's remote hearing that ended with his conviction being vacated, Poole said, according to his attorneys,

I have to say that I didn't understand what was happening back in 1988 when I came to court to be tried for a murder I didn't commit. [...] At 22 years old, and a thousand miles away from anyone I knew, I kicked and screamed and stomped my feet and said "This is not right."

Poole is 56, just two years younger than I am. I'm trying to get my head around the idea of having the last 32 years carved out of my life by an unreliable witness and shitty evidence.

That would have erased the end of my first marriage, the relationship that became my second, my mother's death, the entire life of Kid Zoom, the two years we lived in Japan, our move from Tucson to Boise, the reasonably amicable end of that marriage, the entire 15 years I knew Noted Pundit Our Girlfriend, including her death in January, and of course the nine years I've had the pleasure of writing for Wonkette. And those are merely the broad strokes.

Others have been incarcerated even longer for false convictions. Richard Phillips, released in 2019, spent the most time in prison before an exoneration, 46 years. (Coincidentally, his was another Michigan case.) He was 72 when he was finally released; I'm not sure the $1.5 million he received under the 2016 Michigan Wrongful Imprisonment Compensation Act was exactly compensation for a lifetime, but at least Michigan has such a fund.

Mr. Poole spent his time in prison reading and studying law, and he became a born-again Christian, which has been a source of great comfort to him. The work of the Innocence Project is invaluable, and every state should absolutely set up its own version of Michigan's Conviction Integrity Unit. Even more important, we need reforms to make sure such false convictions are more rare. As far as we can tell, the real killer of Robert Mejia was never found, so there's another reason the justice system should be more, in a word, judicious.

Nessel says that the Conviction Integrity Unit has received over 1,300 requests to examine cases. Even if only a fraction of them are valid, that's a hell of a lot of integrity that needs to be restored.

[Law & Crime / Detroit Metro Times / Detroit News / Innocence Project / National Academy of Sciences]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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