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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.

Innocent man, jailed for 20 years, suing forensic experts

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http://rt.com/usa/starks-innocent-jail-suing-711/

Bennie Starks was released from prison in 2006, after being locked up for 20 years for a crime he never committed. He is now suing the forensic experts who falsely testified against him in a case of sexual assault.

Although Starks’ charges were dismissed, the 53-year-old man will never regain his lost years. In 1986, he was found guilty of assaulting and raping a 69-year-old woman from Waukegan, Ill., and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

Government witnesses, two dentists and a forensic technician testified against him. The rape victim also identified him in a photo line-up, but Starks believes two police officers encouraged the woman to accuse him.

Dr. Carl Hagstrom and Dr. Russell Schneider, two dentists, testified that the bite marks on the victim’s body matched the marks left by Starks’ teeth. Their methodology, however, was outdated and unreliable, according to information obtained by the Courthouse News Service.

With government witnesses, forensic ‘experts’, and the victim herself alleging that Starks was the rapist, there was little he could do to keep himself out of prison. But in 2006, the Illinois Appellate Court vacated the man’s conviction and set up a retrial. DNA evidence cleared him of the 1986 rape, and Starks walked out of prison a free man.

It wasn’t until January 2013 that all of his charges were dismissed and his record was clean.

“I’m just overwhelmed with joy,” Starks told ABC after walking out of the courtroom with a clean slate. The man’s attorney, Jed Stone, compared the outcome to a “ray of sunlight that cracked through a cloud”. 

But what Starks can’t forget is the false testimony by the state’s forensic technician, Sharon Thomas-Boyd, as well as the two dentists who matched his teeth to the bite marks. Thomas-Boyd falsely claimed that Starks’ semen matched the DNA found on the victim.

US District Judge Gary Feinerman supported Starks’ theory that the forensic experts engaged in a conspiracy to falsely accuse him.

“The complaint amply alleges that the police defendants, the dentist defendants, and Thomas-Boyd all worked to get Starks convicted for a crime he did not commit, and it is more plausible that they each made their contributions to that effort in the context of an agreement to secure a wrongful conviction than that, by some wild coincidence, everyone who came into contact with Starks’s case independently developed a desire to see him convicted and a willingness to lie in pursuit of that goal,” the judge said, according to court documents.

It is unlikely that the police officers will be penalized for lying to the jury, since they hold impunity for doing so. But it is possible that they could face charges for prompting the rape victim to falsely identify Starks as the suspect.

Starks claims the conspiracy caused him emotional distress. The Innocence Project, a group that originally helped the man clear his name, told ABC that in cases where innocent men are imprisoned, misidentification is most often the cause.

“Bennie’s case features a wrongful identification and also faulty forensics,” Lauren Kaeseberg of the Innocence Project said in January. “Misidentifications make up 75 percent of wrongful convictions.”

In the state of Illinois, committing conspiracy or perjury under oath or affirmation is a class 3 felony, which could result in 2-5 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $25,000. The lawsuit accuses the forensic experts of filing false reports, giving false statements, conspiring against Starks and pursuing wrongful prosecutions.

The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, but Judge Feinerman denied all motions except the intentional infliction of emotion distress.

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

 

State Attorney Ignores Science, Impedes Starks’ Full Exoneration

From The Innocence Project

Today’s Innocence Blog

Posted: 17 Aug 2012 12:30 PM PDT

Four months after former Illinois inmate Bennie Starks was exonerated of a rape conviction that DNA evidence proves he did not commit, the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office continues to fight efforts to exonerate him of a battery conviction from the same crime. A column by Eric Zorn in today’s Chicago Tribune says 22-year veteran State’s Attorney Michael Waller has a penchant for ignoring scientific evidence and is inclined to develop peculiar theories.

The victim, now deceased, testified that she was attacked and raped by the same man. Earlier this summer, an appeals court ruled that the DNA evidence undermines Starks’ battery conviction and sent it back to the trial court. Waller didn’t see it that way and petitioned the court for a rehearing.

Prosecutors argued in court that the traces of semen must have come from an earlier sexual partner of the victim and been present due to her “bad hygiene.”

The problem with this new theory was that the sample was fresh – no more than 30 hours old according to expert trial testimony – and the victim was on record that she hadn’t had sex with anyone for at least three days prior to the attack.

Zorn cites other cases in which Waller’s office has exhibited a preference for outlandish theories over solid scientific evidence.

Juan Rivera convicted in the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Stoker in Waukegan. When testing excluded Rivera as the source of DNA found in the victim, prosecutors under Waller argued that the little girl had consensual sex with a never-identified boyfriend prior to the attack.

Jerry Hobbs arrested and held without bond in the 2005 slaying of his daughter Laura, 8, and her friend Krystal Tobias, 9, in a Zion park. In 2007, when DNA testing of semen found in his daughter excluded Hobbs, the Walleristas insisted that Laura must have been playing near where a couple had had sex, gotten semen on her fingers and wiped it on herself.

Read the full column.

Cases Where DNA Revealed that Bite Mark Analysis Led to Wrongful Arrests and Convictions

From the Innocence Project     http://www.innocenceproject.org/

Forensic science errors are a leading cause of wrongful convictions nationwide. Scientific errors, fraud or limitations were a factor in 63% of the first 86 DNA exoneration cases, according to an August 2005 analysis of the cases published in Science magazine. These forensic science mishaps include everything from lab analysts who committed fraud to expert witnesses who relied on analyses of forensic disciplines which have never been adequately validated to identify a perpetrator such as: hair, bullets, handwriting, footprints, or bite marks. Using DNA – which provides a precise identification that other methods cannot – wrongful convictions were exposed years or even decades later.

Bite mark analysis is particularly troubling because of the almost complete absence of validated rules, regulations, or processes for accreditation that establish standards for experts or the testimony they provide. Unlike other areas of forensic analysis, forensic dentists are generally self-employed rather than employees of an accredited lab and hence they can avoid even that layer of oversight. Moreover, no government entity has ever reviewed the validity of bite mark evidence. “[B]ite mark analysis has never passed through the rigorous scientific examination that is common to most normal sciences,” according to the 2002 book Modern Scientific Evidence: The Law and Science of Expert Testimony.

There are approximately 100 forensic odontologists in the country who have been certified by boards controlled by other odontologists – generally speaking, their friends and colleagues – but not accredited by an entity that applies scientific rigor. Much forensic odontology work involves comparing dental records to well-preserved teeth of people who died in fires or other tragedies – but comparing an accused person’s teeth to marks on a victim’s body is far more subjective, and far more prone to error. As noted in Modern Scientific Evidence, “The rate of error in bite mark identification, particularly the rate of false positive errors, appears to be quite high.” In fact, only three studies have examined the reliability of bite mark analysis. All three show serious problems. One showed an error rate – a rate of false identifications – as high as 91%. Another (conducted by the American Board of Forensic Odontology) found a 63.5% rate of false identifications, and the third showed an error rate of 11.9% to 22% of false identifications among forensic odontologists and noted that the “poor performance” is cause for concern because it has “very serious implications for the accused, the discipline, and society.”

The Innocence Project believes that all forensic disciplines need to be scientifically validated through truly independent research and peer review before the methodologies are used in criminal cases where life and liberty are at stake. Moreover, even if the methodology is valid, bias, incompetence, or a lack of adequate internal controls can compromise the integrity of the results. The Innocence Project’s position is based on fundamental principles of good science and the disturbing narratives of innocent people, arrested and convicted of crimes based on bite mark analysis, only to eventually be proven innocent through DNA testing.

Following are five cases where people were convicted based largely on bite mark analysis, only to be proven innocent through DNA years later:

Willie Jackson in Louisiana
DNA testing exonerated Willie Jackson in 2006 and implicated his brother in a Louisiana rape. The victim identified Jackson as the assailant in a photo array and also in a live line-up. His brother also appeared in a line-up but was not identified by the victim. However, Jackson lived 185 miles away from the scene of the crime, while his brother lived in the area. Several other factors tied his brother to the crime: When police searched Jackson’s mother’s house, they found a sweater with his brother’s name on it that was similar to the one described by the victim; Jackson’s mother drove a car similar to the victim’s description; and a bartender testified that he saw Jackson’s brother, and not Jackson himself, in the same bar as the victim the night of the rape. In addition to eyewitness testimony, the prosecution presented a forensic odontologist who testified that bite marks on the victim matched Jackson’s teeth. Just days after Jackson was convicted in 1989, his brother confessed to the crime but was not charged. Sixteen years later, Jackson was released based on DNA test results. In addition, a second, independent odontologist argued that the earlier finding was incorrect and that the bite marks actually matched Jackson’s brother. His brother was already serving a life sentence for an unrelated rape.

Ray Krone in Arizona
Based largely on bite mark analysis, Ray Krone was convicted of murdering a Phoenix bartender and sentenced to death plus 21 years. Krone became known as the “snaggle-tooth killer” when an impression of his jagged teeth (in a Styrofoam cup) was said to match the bite marks on the breast and neck of the murder victim. She had been fatally stabbed, and the perpetrator left behind little physical evidence. There were no fingerprints; blood at the scene matched the victim’s type; and saliva on her body came from someone with the most common blood type. There was no semen, and no DNA tests were performed. First convicted in 1992, Krone won a re-trial in 1996 and was convicted again mainly on the state’s supposed expert bite-mark testimony. His death sentence, however, was reduced to life in prison. Finally, in 2002, Krone was released after DNA testing proved that he could not have been the perpetrator. Instead, saliva and blood found on the victim matched a convicted rapist.

Calvin Washington in Texas
Calvin Washington was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in Texas in 1987. It was alleged that Washington, either acting alone or with Joe Sidney Williams, robbed, raped, and murdered the victim. An expert witness testified that bruises on the victim’s body were bite marks that matched Williams’ teeth. A jailhouse informant claimed that he heard Washington and Williams make incriminating statements when he walked by their hotel room one night. Meanwhile, the defense presented over a dozen Waco, Texas, police officers who testified to the unreliability of the jailhouse informant. The prosecution also produced evidence that the defendants were in possession of the victim’s car and had sold items belonging to the victim on the night of the crime. Both Williams and Washington were convicted. Williams’ conviction was overturned and the prosecution declined to retry him. Washington served 13 years in prison before DNA test results exonerated him in 2001. Testing also showed that fluids taken from the victim did not come from Washington, but rather from another man, since deceased.

James O’Donnell in New York
James O’Donnell became a suspect in an attempted sodomy case on the basis of a police sketch. A Staten Island resident, having seen the sketch in the newspaper, contacted the police and named O’Donnell. The victim later identified O’Donnell in a photo array and in a live line-up, but a second witness who was also at the scene of the crime did not identify him. The victim had passed out after struggling with the assailant. He bit her on the hand and she scratched him. The bite mark was said to match impressions of O’Donnell’s teeth, but DNA testing of the saliva on the bite mark later disproved the finding. Testing of the fingernail scrapings matched the saliva and further proved that O’Donnell was not the perpetrator. He was exonerated in 2000, after over two years of wrongful incarceration.

Dan Young in Illinois
Dan Young spent 12 years in prison before DNA testing cleared his name in a Chicago murder. His conviction was based on a bite mark match and a false confession. Young was mentally handicapped and could not read or write. An initial analysis of the bite mark found a match between Young’s teeth and the bite mark, but a more recent analysis, commissioned by the defense, contradicted this finding. The odontologist who aided in Young’s conviction later said that the prosecution pushed him to exaggerate his results. Young was released in early 2005.

Bite mark analysis has also caused an unknown number of innocent men and women to be arrested and charged with crimes they did not commit. Some of these people became ensnared in police investigations on the basis of nothing more than an erroneous bite mark “match.” The following people languished in jails awaiting trial until DNA testing lead to their release:

  • In 1994, Anthony Otero of Detroit was charged with first-degree murder, rape, and larceny in the death of a 60-year-old woman. A forensic odontologist testified at a preliminary examination that Otero was “the only person in the world” who could have inflicted bite marks found on the victim’s breast and thigh. After Otero spent five months in jail awaiting trial, the state dismissed the charges after a newly available DNA test excluded him as the perpetrator.
  • Dale Morris, Jr., was arrested in 1997 based on bite mark analysis matching his dentition to a mark on a nine-year-old murder victim. Morris was a neighbor to the little girl who was found stabbed, sexually assaulted, and bitten in a field near her Florida home. He spent four months in jail until DNA tests proved his innocence.
  • A police dog led officers to the home of Edmund Burke during an investigation in the murder of a 75-year-old woman from Massachusetts. The assailant had left a bite mark on her breast. The odontologist in the case compared photos of the bite wound with a mold made from Burke’s teeth and concluded “to a reasonable scientific certainty” that Burke had made the mark. However, just weeks after his arrest, DNA taken from saliva from the bite mark was tested and Burke was released.

After 20 years in prison, man cleared in ’86 Waukegan rape

By Dan Hinkel Chicago Tribune reporter

Starks case dismissed

Surrounded by his attorneys, Bennie Starks speaks to the media after his court case was dismissed in the Lake County Courthouse in Waukegan today. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune / May 15, 2012)

Lake County prosecutors have dropped rape charges against Bennie Starks, who spent 20 years in prison before DNA pointed away from him.

Assistant State’s Attorney Jim Newman appeared at a brief hearing and dropped the sexual assault charges.

“He is a free man and he is not guilty,” said Starks’ lawyer, Jed Stone.

Starks, dressed in a burgundy sport coat and black and white checked shirt, accepted a hug around the shoulder from another of his lawyers, Vanessa Potkin from the New York-based Innocence Project.

“This has been a great day,” Starks said.

As to his plans, he said, “Spend time with my grandkids and just…living.”

Starks, 52, of Chicago was convicted in 1986 of raping a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan. He was in the middle of a 60-year sentence when the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006 and he was released on bond. As with three other recent Lake County cases, prosecutors insisted on his guilt even after DNA pointed toward someone else as the attacker.

The possibility of a retrial had been thrown into doubt by court rulings barring prosecutors from using the testimony of the victim, who identified Starks as the rapist.

She died several years ago, and a Lake County judge ruled in January 2011 that prosecutors could not use her past testimony at the retrial.

The state appeals court affirmed that decision in February, writing that Starks’ lawyers would not have a fair shot at cross-examining her and holding that the original cross-examination was inadequate.

Since February’s ruling, Starks has waited to learn whether prosecutors planned to retry him.

After the conflicting DNA evidence became public in the early 2000s, prosecutors responded much as they did to other cases involving forensic evidence suggesting a suspect’s innocence.

Prosecutors argued that the DNA did not clear Starks because the woman could have had consensual sex with someone else, although she said at trial she had not had sex in the weeks before the attack.

The woman identified him as the man who pulled her into a ravine and beat, bit and raped her. A dentist said bite marks on the victim matched Starks, and his jacket was found at the scene.

Starks said the jacket and money were stolen from him after he passed the evening in a local tavern, and the defense attorneys have called the scientific rigor of the bite-mark evidence into question.

In the early 2000s, testing turned up a genetic profile from another man on the victim’s underwear. Later, testing on a vaginal swab found DNA that didn’t come from Starks, and the appeals court ordered a new trial in 2006.

This morning, it first appeared that Starks’ wait to have his name cleared might continue.

Newman, the assistant state’s attorney, surprised Starks’ defense lawyers at the start of today’s hearing when, instead of immediately dropping the charges, he asked for a continuance while the appeals court considers Stark’s challenge to his battery conviction. Starks hopes to see that conviction — which stems from the same crime — wiped from his record.

Without pause, Judge John Phillips tersely declined that request and told prosecutors to make a decision on retrying Starks immediately. Newman left court for a few minutes to consult with his superiors, then returned to begin filling out paperwork for Starks’ case before the judge returned.

Stone, one Starks lawyers, approached Newman as he filled out a court form and smiled as he said, “That’s N-O-L-L-E,” a reference to the Latin phrase, nolle prosequi, which indicates a prosecutor is dropping charges.

When Phillips returned, Newman dropped the charges and hurried from the courtroom. He declined to comment on the decision.

Freelance reporter Ruth Fuller contributed

dhinkel@tribune.com