By David Averill
The United States Senate heard testimony from a distinguished panel last Wednesday on Capitol Hill. When asked by Senator Nelson which forensic discipline should not be advanced, Mr Mearns, the Co-chair, National Academies’ Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Science Community said that in his opinion, forensic odontology (bitemarks) is so far from scientific validation that it is not worthy of research funding. See the video clip below for his exact words.
This testimony was from a hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that is investigating the science of forensics. The hearing was held on Wednesday, December 7th on Capitol Hill. Senator Jay Rockefeller is the chair of the committee which included testimony from John Grisham, Innocence Project, Charlottesville, Virginia; Constantine Gatsonis, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island; Geoffrey S. Means, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio; and Terry W. Fenger, Marshall University Forensic Science Center, Huntington, West Virginia. Dr. Gatosonis and Mr. Means were the co-chairs of the National Academy of Science committee that produced the report in 2009 for congress called “Strengthening Forensic Science, a Pathway Forward”.
Senator Rockefeller in his pre-testimony opening remarks was critical of the forensic science community, not the practitioners. He feels that the problem involves the “science”, partly because there are no national standards for the language used in the courtroom to report outcomes. He gave an example of when an expert in a fancy suit and fancy degrees says the evidence is a “match” the next place for the defendant is a jail cell.
Forensic Odontology also suffers from this lack of standard meanings for the terms used to identify bitemarks and the lack of error rates associated with the terms used. The ABFO further obfuscates the use of terminology last year by adding the term “cannot exclude” to the opinions approved to be expressed in bitemark analysis terminology. Juries, law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges don’t know or understand what the term “can’t exclude” actually means.
As a case in point, ”can’t exclude” was used by a forensic odontologist in a preliminary hearing this fall in Washington, D.C.. The bitemark had low or no forensic value but was put forth by the prosecution as bitemark evidence in the homicide case. What the expert did to “help” the prosecution was a lengthy report full of measurements, color photographs and fancy diagrams relating the bitemark to the defendant with a final conclusion of “can’t exclude”. In reality, this bitemark had no forensic identification value with probably 99% of the population capable of making the markings. This information is not however provided to the court. The prosecutor decided not to present the bitemark evidence because of “other problems” that cropped up in the case which will be a blog post in the future.
The future of un-validated forensic science may be in the hands of Congress.