June 17, 2013

Bite-mark evidence derided as unreliable in courts

Critics are questioning its scientific validity and the qualifications of those paid to testify about it.

The Associated Press

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This April 17, 2013 photo shows dental molds that are part of an experiment showing systematic alteration of tooth position to determine when small differences in tooth arrangement can be recognized in bite marks in skin, at the school in Buffalo, N.Y. Bite marks, long accepted as criminal evidence, now face doubts about reliability. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

Richard Souviron
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Forensic odontologist Dr. Richard Souviron points to a photo of Ted Bundy’s teeth during Bundy’s 1979 murder trial in Miami. Souviron, who is considered the founding father of bite-mark forensics, argues there’s a “real need for bite marks in our criminal justice system.”

The Associated Press

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Testifying can earn a forensic dentist $1,500 to $5,000 per case, though most testify in only a few a year. The consequences for being wrong are almost nonexistent. Many lawsuits against forensic dentists employed by counties and medical examiner's offices have been thrown out because as government officials, they're largely immune from liability.

Only one member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology has ever been suspended, none has ever been decertified, and some dentists still on the board have been involved in some of the most high-profile and egregious exonerations on record.

Even Dr. Michael West, whose testimony is considered pivotal in the wrongful convictions or imprisonment of at least four men, was not thrown off the board. West was suspended and ended up stepping down.

Among his cases were the separate rapes and murders of the two 3-year-old girls in Mississippi, where West testified that two men later exonerated by DNA evidence were responsible for what he said were bite marks on their bodies. The marks later turned out to be from crawfish and insects, and a different man's DNA matched both cases.

West now says DNA has made bite mark analysis almost obsolete.

"People love to have a black-and-white, and it's not black and white," said West, of Hattiesburg, Miss., where he has a dental practice but no longer works on bite mark cases. "I thought it was extremely accurate, but other cases have proven it's not."

Levon Brooks, convicted of killing one of the girls, spent 16 years in prison. The other, Kennedy Brewer, was behind bars for 13 years, many of them on death row.

West defended his testimony, saying he never testified that Brooks and Brewer were the killers, only that they bit the children, and that he's not responsible for juries who found them guilty.

Other dentists involved in exonerations have been allowed to remain on the board as long as they don't handle more bite mark cases, said Wright, the Cincinnati forensic dentist.

"The ABFO has had some internal issues as far as not really policing our own," he said.

Wright and other forensic dentists have been working to develop guidelines to help avert problems of the past while retaining bite mark analysis in the courtroom.

Their efforts include a flow chart to help forensic dentists determine whether bite mark analysis is even appropriate for a given case. Wright also is working on developing a proficiency test that would be required for recertification every five years.

An internal debate over the future of the practice was laid bare at a conference in Washington in February, when scores of dentists — many specializing in bite mark analysis — attended days of lectures and panel discussions. The field's harshest critics also were there, leading to heated discussions about the method's limitations and strengths.

Dr. Gregory Golden, a forensic dentist and president of the odontology board, acknowledged that flawed testimony has led to the "ruination of several innocent people's lives" but said the field was entering a "new era" of accountability.

Souviron, who testified against Bundy in 1979 and is one of the founding fathers of bite mark analysis in the U.S., argued there's a "real need for bite marks in our criminal justice system."

In an interview with the AP, Souviron compared the testimony of well-trained bite mark analysts to medical examiners testifying about a suspected cause of death.

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Ted Bundy



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