Check out the latest Popular Science magazine article titled “It’s Time To Treat Crime Forensics Like Real Science”.
January 18, 2012 — In a case that could open an inquiry into the scientific validity of bite mark evidence, two Illinois dentists are suing an expert odontologist for allegedly defaming them after he used a rape case they testified at as an example of how bite mark evidence can lead to wrongful convictions.
Russell Schneider, DDS, of Waukegan, and Carl Hagstrom, DDS, of Fox Lake, filed their lawsuitagainst Ventura, CA, dentist C. Michael Bowers, JD, DDS, in November 2011 in Cook County Circuit Court.
The lawsuit claims that Dr. Bowers used a case they worked on as proof that the forensic discipline is scientifically unreliable.
— Jed Stone, attorney
Dr. Bowers is a clinical professor at the University of Southern California Ostrow School of Dentistry in Los Angeles and has written several forensic dentistry books, including Forensic Dental Evidence: An Investigator’s Handbook. He also co-authored Digital Analysis of Bite Mark Evidence. He has been a dentist for 36 years and is certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology and as a crime scene analyst. He also serves as a deputy medical examiner for the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s Office.
In February 2011, Dr. Bowers, who lectures frequently, gave a presentation titled, “A Perfect Storm: Is There a New Paradigm to Keep Bitemarks Afloat or Will They Sink?” at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Science. According to the lawsuit, he included in that talk a case that Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom had worked on in a list of 10 wrongful convictions caused by bite mark evidence. They allege that this action subjected them to ridicule and a loss of business.
The case Dr. Bowers referenced involved Bennie Starks, who was convicted in 1986 of beating and raping a 68-year-old woman. Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom examined evidence for prosecutors in the case and testified at trial that Stark’s teeth matched a bite mark on the woman’s shoulder.
Starks was sentenced to 60 years in prison but always maintained his innocence. In 2006, after serving nearly 20 years, an Illinois appeals court granted Starks a new trial after DNA tests excluded him as the source of semen on the victim’s underwear.
The appellate court did not rule on the bite mark evidence. But subsequent forensic analysis of Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom’s opinions by Dr. Bowers and other odontologists concluded that their work was flawed, according to Jed Stone, Starks’ attorney. Specifically, they found that Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom reversed the upper and lower molds of Starks’ teeth, confusing one for the other, in their examination.
Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom did not respond to requests by DrBicuspid.com for comment; Dr. Bowers declined to comment.
Bite mark analysis criticized
Bite mark testimony has been criticized by some courts for its lack of a scientific foundation, essentially leaving dentists to compare by visual examination bite marks on a victim’s skin with x-rays or molds of a suspect’s teeth to determine if they match.
“Drs. Hagstrom and Schneider incorrectly identified photographs of alleged bite marks on the victim as coming from Mr. Starks,” Stone told DrBicuspid.com. “We now know two things. One, they were wrong. And two, their bite mark opinion, introduced by the prosecution at Mr. Starks’ trial, contributed to his wrongful conviction.”
A Congressional hearing in 2009 focused on the findings of a National Academy of Sciences report on the scientific basis of forensic disciplines. Among the pattern evidence fields reviewed in the report, bite mark analysis received critical commentary. During the hearing, legislators heard from another man who, like Sparks, was wrongfully convicted on bite mark evidence and later exonerated through DNA analysis.
In addition, a 2009 study published in theJournal of Forensic Sciences (July 2009, Vol. 54:4, pp. 909-914) challenged the commonly held belief that every bite mark can be perpetrator identified. The results indicated that when dental alignments were similar, distinguishing which set of teeth made the bites was difficult. The researchers cautioned that bite marks should be very carefully evaluated in criminal investigations in which perpetrator identity is the focus of a case.
The study’s lead author, Raymond Miller, DDS, a clinical associate professor of oral diagnostic sciences at the University at Buffalo’s Laboratory for Forensic Odontology Research in the School of Dental Medicine, noted that numerous cases have been overturned through erroneous interpretation of bite marks. Dr. Miller warned of the dire consequences caused by such misidentification for the accused, the victim, and the justice system.
“We know that forensic odontologists are excellent at identifying human remains from dental records,” Stone said. “We know that the science is far less reliable when dentists attempt to identify bite marks on elastic skin surfaces. And we know that whatever reliability there is, it is far less reliable still when done only from photographs.”
The current suit claims that Dr. Bowers’ presentation constitutes “false publications” because the reversal of Starks’ conviction was not due to faulty bite mark testimony. It claims that Dr. Bowers imputed that Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom “lack ability and integrity” as forensic odontologists.
The alleged defamation harmed the professional reputations of Drs. Schneider and Hagstrom, the complaint contends. They have not been retained to provide bite mark testimony in any cases since then, and the number of patients that have been referred to them for treatment and evaluation has decreased, according to the lawsuit.
In a defamation suit, the plaintiff must prove that the alleged defamatory statements are false. If it goes to trial, the case could open an inquiry into the scientific validity of bite mark evidence.
The suit seeks compensatory damages as well as legal costs.
Prosecutors still have not decided whether to retry Starks.
By Lisa Black, Tribune reporter
12:26 pm, January 7, 2013
A wrongfully convicted man who spent 20 years in prison for rape and battery had a happy final day in court today as Lake County officially dropped the last charge in a case that dates back to 1986.
“I don’t even have any words. I am overwhelmed with joy. It’s finally over,” Bennie Starks said outside the Lake County courthouse this morning, minutes after all the details of dropping the case had been ironed out.
Days into his first term in office last month, Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Nerheim agreed to vacate the final charge of aggravated battery, reversing the course of retired Lake County State’s Attorney Michael Waller.
“For 2½ decades, a dark cloud has shrouded this courthouse,” Starks’ attorney Jed Stone said. “Today a ray of sunlight shines through that cloud because of Mike Nerheim.”
The case has a byzantine history that reaches back to 1986.
Starks, 53, who lives in Chicago, spent 20 years in prison for raping and battering a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan before DNA pointed away from him.
The victim had identified Starks as her attacker, authorities had said his jacket was found near the scene and bite marks on the woman matched him. His attorneys called the dental evidence into question, and he said his jacket had been stolen from him.
He was freed six years ago after DNA evidence indicated the woman had had sex with someone else and appeals judges ordered a new trial. Prosecutors continued to pursue the rape charge against Starks, arguing the woman must have had consensual sex with another man, although she said the opposite at trial.
Prosecutors finally dropped the rape charge in May, but the battery charge survived because it had been split from the rape case by a prior court ruling.
In June, the appeals court ordered Lake County to hold a hearing where Starks’ lawyers could argue for a new trial on the battery charge. Lake County called on appeals judges to reconsider and, when they declined, asked the state Supreme Court for review.
The Illinois Supreme Court declined to do so on Nov. 28, one week before Nerheim said he would end Starks’ prosecution.
“He’s finally cleared his name,” said Lauren Kaeseberg, an attorney who had been working with Starks since 2004 for the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongly convicted.
“He’s exonerated in every way … he can move forward … now he can explain a 25-year gap in his work history.”
Historian; Publisher; Author
Even casual samplers of the media now come across colossal injustices and failures in the U.S. justice criminal system every two weeks or so. Yet these stories, everyone a heart-breaking recitation of how willful prosecution misconduct has ruined a life or a family, with no consequences at all to whoever has abused his great powers as a prosecutor, seem never to elicit any particular public response or gain any traction for review or reform.
It is an achievement just to pierce the eagerness of most of the media to be a stentorian Hallelujah chorus for law and order paranoia.
The latest such incident is the lamentable affair in Texas in which Michael Morton was accused and convicted of murdering his wife, spent 25 years in prison, has been exonerated because of DNA evidence that was withheld from the trial by prosecutors, and another suspect has now been arrested and charged. Mistakes happen, are not rare, and provide one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty.
What makes this more worrisome than a sad story of a no-fault miscarriage of justice, are strong allegations that the prosecutors, Ken Anderson, now a state judge, and Mike Davis, deliberately sandbagged Morton by unlawfully withholding evidence.
It is alleged that Anderson withheld police notes that someone else committed the murder, did not provide the full police report, including evidence of activity on Mrs. Morton’s credit card after Mr. Morton had been taken into custody; and that Anderson advised his successor as prosecutor “to oppose all of Mr. Morton’s post-conviction motions for DNA testing.”
Morton and his counsel have been assisted by the Innocence Foundation, which specializes in using DNA evidence to seek the exoneration of convicts. It and like-minded groups have sometimes been harassed by prosecutors and threatened with charges of obstructing justice. Innocence and Morton’s own counsel claim that in this case Anderson disobeyed “a direct order from the trial court to produce the exculpatory police reports from the lead investigator,” (a claim the investigator himself corroborates). Morton and his counsel have asked for a “court of inquiry” to determine whether Anderson and Davis should be charged criminally for abetting what they knew to be a false conviction.
For the purposes of determining wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general became the special prosecutor, and the spokesman for the attorney general declined to reply to questions about a possible conflict of interest. Anderson and Davis at first refused to give depositions or answer subpoenas, but when overwhelmed by decisions validating Morton’s right to know more, Anderson said he felt “sick” about what had happened, but explained, as if it mitigated responsibility or the gravity of what occurred, that “prosecutors are under a lot of pressure to convict.” Davis claimed to be only an “innocent bystander” between Morton and Anderson, an unusual posture for a prosecutor in his own case.
The issue is whether prosecutors are under any requirement at all to comply with defendants’ constitutional rights to due process and a fair trial, or if there is no sanction at all for their violation of those rights. In a well-publicized Arkansas case last year, three men who had been in prison for 17 years, one on death row, for a murder for which they were ultimately exonerated, could only negotiate themselves to freedom by pleading guilty to a lesser offense for which they were released for time served. But by pre-arrangement, they recounted to the court that it was a false plea, that they were not guilty of anything, and that they were only going through this charade to restart their lives as free men as quickly as possible. The episode was reported almost without comment even in the liberal national media.
Prosecutors have practically untrammeled discretion in deciding what to charge, how many counts to allege, and a very wide latitude in sentences sought. Grand juries are just a rubber stamp for prosecutors, and contrary to the spirit of the Fifth Amendment, provide absolutely no assurance against capricious prosecution. But complicity in or direct causation of the lengthy incarceration of falsely accused and convicted people, not to be confused with honest error and misplaced zeal, is a terribly serious offense and is so treated in every other serious jurisdiction except the U.S.
The Brady Rule, enunciated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, requires prosecutors to disclose evidence favorable to defendants. But failure to do so is rarely discovered and almost never punished when it is unearthed. In the infamous case of Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, it was revealed that the prosecutors had withheld evidence that they knew to be exculpatory, causing the senator’s conviction and narrow electoral defeat, before the whole case was blown up as unjust.
Yet the court-appointed inquiry did not recommend criminal proceedings against the prosecutors for professional misconduct because the trial judge had not told the prosecutors that they had to obey the law. This is utterly spurious, of course, but especially so as the transcript reveals that the prosecutors responded to a request from senator Stevens’ defense team for a motion so ordering them, that it was unnecessary because they would of course not break the law. (The report expressed no opinion about charging the prosecutors with obstruction of justice.)
The legal profession in the United States is a professional cartel where legislating lawyers and regulators produce thousands of new enforceable laws and regulations every year; judges, prosecutors, and private sector counsel lock arms to ensure that legal invoices, (which total almost 10 per cent of GDP — almost $1.4 trillion annually), are paid as a priority surpassed only by the claims of government.
Unlimited incidences of what other legally serious countries would consider frivolous or vexatious litigation clog the civil courts, and prosecutors enjoy a stacked evidentiary and procedural deck which gives them a success rate in prosecutions of over 90 per cent. (The corresponding figure in Canada is about 65 per cent, and only about 40 per cent of those receive custodial sentences.)
The United States has just five per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of its incarcerated people, and 50 per cent of its lawyers. The U.S. Supreme Court is unvaryingly proud to try law and not fact, and is thus ostentatiously uninterested in a just result as such, in the unutterably irritating and desiccated way of people who profess indifference to the control they exercise over the fate of real people.
Last year, in the case of John Thompson, a man who spent 14 years on death row for a crime of which he was eventually exonerated, after a shocking sequence of prosecution acts of deceit, the Supreme Court conferred what amounted to an absolute immunity for prosecutors from civil recourse for their actions. Justice Thomas, for the court majority, explained that the “attorney (including a prosecutor) who violates his or her ethical (obligations) is subject to professional discipline, including sanctions, suspension, and disbarment.” The justice knows what a fatuous bit of dissembling this is, as the legal cartel locks arms to assist its members to escape responsibility for all but the most egregious crimes. (Justice Ginsburg’s opinion for the dissenters was very cogent.)
In any other legally serious country, the Morton-like cases would incite public outrage. In the Morton case, Judge Sid Harle, in releasing Morton after 25 years of wrongful imprisonment caused by prosecution dishonesty, expressed his “sympathies” for Morton, but said his release proved that the United States “has the best justice system in the world.”
In fact, it is a frequently evil and generally defective system that thrives on complacency. Republicans have even delayed Senator Jim Webb’s proposal to establish a blue ribbon commission to review stratospheric American incarceration rates.
In the United States, even the staggering 48 million people with a “record” seem not to care. The media, in their lust to amplify the publicization of crime and incite paranoia, have brain-washed from public memory the ragged bourgeois, constitutional, heirloom of the presumption of innocence.
Next to the electoral accountability of government officials, the two greatest pillars of democratic civilization are the rule of law and a free press. By giving the press, in theNew York Times and Sullivan, an almost absolute immunity against defamation actions, and the prosecution service an almost absolute immunity from responsibility for its own lawlessness, the Supreme Court has detonated high explosives under the foundations of American civilization.
Needless to add, the justices enjoy life sinecures in their August offices, and have generally avoided the well-earned public contempt that now largely attaches to the Congress and most of the administration. The law is a very spavined ass, and the sooner the public realizes this and determines that something must be done about it, the better it will be for everyone.
I want to thank all those that donated to my Innocent Partner web page. As one of 233 innocent partners, we raised $20,757 for the Innocence Project. This money is being used to represent those that have been wrongfully convicted. To date 268 innocent people have been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence.
Click on the image to watch a video message of thanks.
Bitemark experts from North America will gather this week in Chicago for their annual scientific meeting. The highlight of the week will be the presentation on Thursday by a research team from the University of Buffalo. The research team has published a number of scientific articles that oppose what many of the bitemark experts have testified in their past cases concerning bitemarks.
There will be a palpable trepidation among many of the bitemark experts as the guest scientists from the University of Buffalo deliver their talk. The presentation will likely be about the lack of scientific studies on skin distortion and the unresolved issue of dental uniqueness. The Buffalo team consists of Peter Bush, Mary Bush, David Sheets and Ray Miller who have published numerous articles in the scientific forensic journals. I will post more on their presentation later.
Wisconsin Compensates Innocent Man $115,000
Faulty bitemark analysis has cost another innocent man 23 years in prison. This was a result of a board certified forensic odontologist’s mistake who incorrectly “matched” Mr. Stinson’s teeth to a bitemark left on the skin of a homicide victim. Dr. L.T. Johnson is the forensic dentist at Marquette University who made the serious mistake.
Although he botched this case, Dr. Johnson was recently awarded a grant from the National Institute of Justice for over $700,000 to study whether teeth can be replicated in skin and then linked to a specific dentition. In this study, Dr. Johnson hopes to prove what he had claimed to be true at the time of the trial. Unfortunately in this case, the erroneous analysis and testimony at the time of trial was portrayed to the jury as scientifically based and without known error rates resulting in a wrongful conviction.
The Innocence Project used DNA and a panel of forensic dentists to peer review the case and concluded that Mr. Stinson was innocent. Dr. Johnson has re-tested the evidence using today’s modern day tools and still stands by his opinion that Mr. Stinson is the biter. This is yet another reason for competency or proficiency testing in forensic odontology, but it is currently viewed from the profession as unnecessary.
Until recently bitemark analysis had been very popular in the courts, being admitted in all 50 states. The popularity chilled when multiple bitemark cases were shown to have implicated the wrong individuals. The door was slammed shut when in 2009 the National Academy of Science published a report criticizing the forensic sciences. The study concluded that bitemark analysis should not be used until there is sound science to support the claims of a unique dentition and of the skin to be able to transfer the uniqueness.
The video below is a media piece on the work that Dr. Johnson and the prosecutorial team has done to fight crime using bitemark analysis. It was released shortly before Mr. Stinson was found to be innocent of the crime that placed him in prison for 23 years.
The video shows how a jury can be biased when the testimony and methodology appears to be a proven science.