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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Ray Krone, the so-called "Snaggletooth Killer," who was convicted in 1992 and again in 1996 after winning a new trial in the murder of a Phoenix bartender found naked and stabbed in the men's restroom of the bar where she worked. Krone spent 10 years in prison, three on death row.

Raymond Rawson, a Las Vegas forensic dentist, testified at both trials that bite marks on the bartender could only have come from Krone, evidence that proved critical in convicting him. At his second trial, three top forensic dentists testified for the defense that Krone couldn't have made the bite mark, but the jury didn't give their findings much weight and again found him guilty.

In 2002, DNA testing matched a different man, and Krone was released.

Rawson, like a handful of other forensic dentists implicated in faulty testimony connected to high-profile exonerations, remains on the American Board of Forensic Odontology, the only entity that certifies and oversees bite mark analysts. Now retired, he didn't return messages left at a number listed for him in Las Vegas.

Rawson has never publicly acknowledged making a mistake, nor has he apologized to Krone, who described sitting helplessly in court listening to the dentist identify him as the killer.

"You're dumbfounded," Krone said in a telephone interview from his home in Newport, Tenn. "There's one person that knows for sure and that was me. And he's so pompously, so arrogantly and so confidently stating that, beyond a shadow of doubt, he's positive it was my teeth. It was so ridiculous."

The history of bite mark analysis began in 1954 with a piece of cheese in small-town Texas. A dentist testified that a bite mark in the cheese, left behind in a grocery store that had been robbed, matched the teeth of a drunken man found with 13 stolen silver dollars. The man was convicted.

The first court case involving a bite mark on a person didn't come until two decades later, in 1974, also in Texas. Two dentists testified that a man's teeth matched a bite mark on a murder victim. Although the defense attorney fought the admissibility of the evidence, a court ruled that it should be allowed because it had been used in 1954.

Bite mark analysis hit the big time at Bundy's 1979 Florida trial.

On the night Bundy went on a killing spree that left two young women dead and three others seriously wounded, he savagely bit one of the murder victims, Lisa Levy. A Florida forensic dentist, Dr. Richard Souviron, testified at Bundy's murder trial that his unusual, mangled teeth were a match.

Bundy was found guilty and executed. The bite marks were considered the key piece of physical evidence against him.

That nationally televised case and dozens more in the 1980s and 1990s made bite mark evidence look like infallible, cutting-edge science, and courtrooms accepted it with little debate.

Then came DNA testing. Beginning in the early 2000s, new evidence set free men serving prison time or awaiting the death penalty largely because of bite mark testimony that later proved faulty.

At the core of critics' arguments is that science hasn't shown it's possible to match a bite mark to a single person's teeth or even that human skin can accurately record a bite mark.

Fabricant, of the Innocence Project, said what's most troubling about bite mark evidence is how powerful it can be for jurors.

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TED BUNDY
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Ted Bundy

AP

  


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