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U.S. Mississippi Death Row Case Faults Bite-Mark Forensics

SEPT. 15, 2014

NEW YORK TIMES

In one of the country’s first nationally televised criminal trials, of the smirking serial murderer Ted Bundy in Florida in 1979, jurors and viewers alike were transfixed as dental experts showed how Mr. Bundy’s crooked teeth resembled a bite on a 20-year-old victim.

Mr. Bundy was found guilty and the obscure field of “forensic dentistry” won a place in the public imagination.

Since then, expert testimony matching body wounds with the dentition of the accused has played a role in hundreds of murder and rape cases, sometimes helping to put defendants on death row.

But over this same period, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is prone to bias and unreliable…..

The lack of a scientific basis for bite-mark identification was stressed by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2009 report on forensics. The academy said that such analysis could not reliably identify one individual, among all others, as the source of a bite.

Bite marks on the skin change over time and are easily distorted, the academy said, while there is a huge potential for bias when an expert is asked to match a bite wound with the teeth of a known suspect.

Dr. Peter W. Loomis, a consultant in dental forensics in Albuquerque and president of the discipline’s professional body, the American Board of Forensic Odontology, did not dispute the academy’s conclusions but said that bite-mark analysis still had a useful role in court.

Read more

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/16/us/mississippi-death-row-appeal-highlights-shortcomings-of-bite-mark-identifications.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar&_r=0

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2 dentists sue colleague for criticizing their bite-mark testimony

Witnesses worked on rape case in which defendant was granted a new trial because of DNA evidence

December 25, 2011|By Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune reporter

In the ongoing battle over the use of controversial bite-mark evidence, two Chicago-area dentists have opened a new legal front, suing a colleague for alleged defamation because he used a Lake County rape case they worked on as an example of the oft-criticized discipline gone awry.

Dentists Russell Schneider, of Waukegan, and Carl Hagstrom, of Fox Lake, filed their lawsuit against Michael Bowers, a dentist in California who is a frequent and sometimes acerbic critic of his fellow forensic odontologists for work that has led to numerous wrongful convictions.

A Response to a Critic of the Critics

Mark Page, Ph.D.

The author of the website http://www.bitemark.org posted an article regarding the admissibility of bitemark evidence in several cases in Texas, and spent some time discussing the supposedly ‘asinine’ nature of applying experimental scientific methodology to forensic science. The article makes the point that the scientific method should not apply to some disciplines, as they are not ‘hard’ sciences, like physics and chemistry. This commentary represents an example of why critics of forensic science find these disciplines particularly frustrating, in that they attempt to justify their forensic practice on the basis that they are somehow ‘different’ or ‘immune’ to good scientific practice. But there is no logical reason why forensic science and the scientific method should be mutually exclusive….. Read more by clicking on the PDF below

Open PDF by clicking  a-response-to-a-critic-of-the-critics-2

Another article  by Mark Page can be found by clicking this link: http://www.fdiai.org/articles/Uniqueness-Fact_or_Fiction1.pdf

 

Forensic Failings: How to Improve the Forensic Sciences and Prevent Wrongful Convictions

New York Society of Forensic Dentistry September Meeting:

Monday, September 24, 2012 7:00 PM at NYU College of Dentistry 24th Street & First Avenue – Room 612

 

Summary: Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Litigation at the Innocence Project, will discuss the groundbreaking 2009 National Academy of Sciences report that called for comprehensive overhaul of the forensic science system. Through DNA exoneration cases, the Innocence Project has identified improper and unvalidated forensic science as one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction. Mr. Fabricant will provide case examples on how forensic disciplines, particularly pattern and impression evidence, including fingerprints, tire tread analysis, bite mark analysis and other disciplines have contributed to wrongful convictions–and explain how federal reforms can help significantly strengthen the field.

 

Chris Fabricant

Joseph Flom Special Counsel

Chris Fabricant is the Joseph Flom Special Counsel, Director of Strategic Ligation. Before joining the Innocence Project, he was a clinical law professor and the director of the Criminal Justice Clinic at the Pace University School of Law. Mr. Fabricant has years of criminal defense experience at the state, federal, trial and appellate levels with The Bronx Defenders and Appellate Advocates. He was also a pro se law clerk in the Southern District of New York, where he focused on prisoners’ rights litigation. Mr. Fabricant is the author of the book Busted! (HarperCollins) and his scholarship has been published by the NYU Review of Law & Social Change and the Drexel Law Review. Mr. Fabricant received his J.D. with honors and a Corpus Juris Secundum distinction in criminal law from The George Washington University in 1997.

A Statement Why Court Opinions On Bitemark Analysis Should Be Limited

By C.Michael Bowers

December, 1996

Let’s think for a moment concerning what our wish list would be for bitemark analysis, our profession’s only controversial subject. I would start with an admission and publication from the ABFO of the noted and significant weaknesses that exist at this time in the field. Inferring from its contents, the ABFO’s Guidelines and Standards imply that all things have not been going well. This document expresses some technique recommendations and establishes a few limits on the behavior and language used by forensic dentists. It is not comprehensive since it is silent regarding the scientific basis of dental “uniqueness” determinations by our membership, but its intentions are good and progress is being made. Now is the time to analyze the basic weaknesses and failings of this field’s scientific underpinnings. This article is a short discussion of the biggest weakness and contains a suggestion to minimize the current high degree of risk that exists when bitemark analysis is presented in court.

Taking a historical viewpoint, the early (Texas, 1954)(1) acceptance of bitemark analysis by the U.S. appellate courts really proved a disservice to all participants and future trials. For the sake of this discussion, discount the apparent details of the cases like Marx(2) (California, 1975) which generally contained significant three-dimensional patterns in skin injuries or foodstuffs. The quality of these cases of precedent might not be representative of the majority which followed. There was, however, little science involved in the ultimate opinions dentists delivered in any of these cases. The appellate opinion in Marx realized this when bitemark admissibility was approved on the basis of the “trier of fact” (usually the jury) making their own determination from the evidence presented. Jury acceptance of bitemark testimony is no substitute for population studies and reliability testing. The “generally accepted” methods in use haven’t changed much and the glaring weakness is in the lack of pragmatic determination of “uniqueness” as seen in bitemarks on skin and inanimate objects. Hundreds of cases have occurred since the 1970’s and the issue of individuation has not been resolved scientifically. This place’s odontology at the bottom of the list of other forensic disciplines. Maybe Questioned Document Examination is worse off. There is no reliable way of saying, other than colloquially, that one or more tooth marks seen in a wound are conclusively unique to just one person in the population. Because of this vacuum, value judgements abound in our discipline. Proffering the testifying expert’s years of experience is a popular means of “proving” uniqueness.” He or she has seen more bitemarks. This misses the scientific point and is misleading to a lay jury that is given the responsibility of filtering good science from bad. The confidence level of expert testimony must be based on data available to BOTH the dentist and the court. This scientific data does not exist. Until this changes, the admissibility of bitemark analysis should be limited to a “possible” determination. The odontologist doesn’t have a basis to expand an opinion beyond that. Marks in skin can be spatially associated to the edges of teeth by trained dentists. That is within the realm of physical comparison methodology. The “unique” or “reasonable dental certainty” description currently used to characterize a positive match are not supported by anything other than personal opinion. That is the reason for this proposed limitation on bitemark testimony.

There have been and will continue to be cases where the defendant’s teeth and an unknown bite pattern shows a common pattern and shape. The determination of common similarities equaling a finding of uniqueness can’t be made on such general features. The equation using values of 1 to 4 (one being common) for these generic features such as arch width and tooth width should not be 1x1x1x1=4. The Milone(3) case and its derivative commentaries(4),(5) should be read by everyone to underscore this limitation.

I also propose that a bifurcation must take place in possible value of different types of bitemarks. A three dimensional bite, as in Marx (on a nose), allows for much more accuracy in the “wound to teeth” comparison. Questions of spatial relationships are substantially answered and discrepancies leading to subjective visualization are minimized. The answer is demonstrable and the commonly used syllogism of “its much like a toolmark” is applicable. A two-dimensional wound is a separate and much greater challenge. These cases lack “toolmark” clarity and are the foundation for uncontrolled opinion and poor sensitivity and specificity in analysis.

Research must progress to raise the current anecdotal level of individuation in contemporary bitemark analysis. A concerted effort to find funding and research facilities has to be done by this organization. It will be the cheapest assurance that our future in court will be positive, rather than controversial. After the research is done, the “possible”might then become “unique.”

Footnotes

1. Doyle v. State, 159 Tex. C.R.310, 263 S.W.2d 779 (Jan 20, 1954)

2. People v. Marx, 54 Cal.App3d 100, 126 Cal.Rptr. 350 (Dec. 29, 1975)

3. People v. Milone, 43 Ill.App.3d 385, 356 N.E.2d 1350 (Nov. 12, 1976)

4. U.S. ex rel. Milone v. Camp, Slip opinion (U.S. Dist. Court, N.D.IL; Sept 29, 1992)

5. Milone v. Camp, 22 F.3d 693 (7th Cir.) (Apr. 21, 1994)

About the Author: C.Michael Bowers provides expert and criminal litigation support in matters pertaining to forensic dentistry and DNA profiling. Originally published at Vol. 4, No. 2, December 1996; American Board of Forensic Odontology Newsletter.

Innocence Project’s New Strategic Litigation Unit Takes on Bite Mark Evidence…

From press release:

THE INNOCENCE PROJECT (IP) is a national litigation and public policy organization based in New York dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.  As the DNA exonerations have revealed, the misapplication of forensic science has been a leading cause of wrongful convictions.  The newly created Strategic Litigation unit is aimed at, among other things, eliminating junk science from courtrooms nationwide, beginning with bite mark comparison evidence.  To that end, IP seeks to partner with an attorney(s) on criminal cases involving bite mark comparison.  Attorneys with cases meeting the following criteria should contact IP directly.

  • Bite mark testimony is proffered by the government as evidence identifying the defendant to exclusion of all other potential sources
  • Pre-trial, trial, appellate or post-conviction cases:  The primary interest is assisting with pre-trial Frye/Daubert motions and hearings, but IP will consider bite mark cases in all stages of litigation
  • Other disciplines, in particular other pattern or impression evidence:  Although the initial focus is on bite marks, other novel, unvalidated disciplines will be considered.
  • NOTE:  Strategic Litigation will consider cases with or without biological evidence, i.e., non-DNA cases.