CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After 11 years in a Mississippi prison, Leigh Stubbs and Tammy Vance were exonerated earlier this year of charges that they brutally assaulted another woman and left bite marks all over her body.
Stubbs and Vance were convicted in 2001 on charges of aggravated assault and drug possession and sentenced to 44 years in prison, at least partly because a discredited forensic bite-mark analyst gave bogus testimony during their trial that pinned them to the attack, Stubbs' lawyer, Valena Beety, told the Gazette-Mail.
Beety is now the director of the West Virginia University Innocence Project, a new legal clinic affiliated with a national organization of criminal defense lawyers who help prisoners fight wrongful convictions.
"You get to feel great about what you do -- push through all the obstacles that are in your way," Beety said. "And when you get someone out of prison, it's amazing."
In the case of Stubbs and Vance, forensic odontologist Michael West testified during their trial in the early 2000s that bite marks found on the victim matched their dental records. West also told jurors that security camera footage depicted the two women carrying out the attack.
Prosecutors sent the video to the FBI for analysis. Federal investigators returned with a 20-page report that said they couldn't tell if the people were men or women and that they didn't appear to be engaged in any illegal activity.
The state, however, did not disclose that report to Stubbs and Vance. A Mississippi judge overturned their convictions earlier this year, and West has since admitted that his bite-mark analysis in the case was not sound.
Beety and recent University of Chicago Law School graduate Kristen McKeon, who is helping with cases as part of a yearlong fellowship, will handle the bulk of the casework for the WVU clinic. The clinic's four law students are charged with screening applicants for the program, Beety said.
"We're focusing as a project on freeing innocent people who are in prison, but also on policy problems, systemic problems that lead to wrongful convictions, and making eyewitness identification more reliable," she said.
Seventy-five percent of the 297 prisoners exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989 were convicted because they were mistakenly identified as suspects, according to figures from the national Innocence Project, which is based in New York.
WVU's clinic is still new, Beety said, so they haven't received many applications for post-conviction help, but she has been reaching out to prisons, public defender offices and other avenues for leads on potential cases.