At least 24 men convicted or charged with murder or rape based on bite marks on the flesh of victims have been exonerated since 2000, many after spending more than a decade in prison. Now a judge’s ruling later this month in New York could help end the practice for good.
A small, mostly ungoverned group of dentists carry out bite mark analysis and their findings are often key evidence in prosecutions, even though there is no scientific proof that teeth can be matched definitively to a bite into human skin.
DNA has outstripped the usefulness of bite mark analysis in many cases: The FBI doesn’t use it and the American Dental Association does not recognize it.
“Bite mark evidence is the poster child of unreliable forensic science,” said Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the New York-based Innocence Project, which helps wrongfully convicted inmates win freedom through DNA testing.
Supporters of the method, which involves comparing the teeth of possible suspects to bite mark patterns on victims, argue it has helped convict child murderers and other notorious criminals, including serial killer Ted Bundy. They say problems that have arisen are not about the method, but about the qualifications of those testifying, who can earn as much as $5,000 a case.
“The problem lies in the analyst or the bias,” said Dr. Frank Wright, a forensic dentist in Cincinnati. “So if the analyst is ... not properly trained or introduces bias into their exam, sure, it’s going to be polluted, just like any other scientific investigation. It doesn’t mean bite mark evidence is bad.”
The Associated Press reviewed decades of court records, archives, news reports and filings by the Innocence Project in order to compile the most comprehensive count to date of those exonerated after being convicted or charged based on bite mark evidence. Two dozen forensic scientists and other experts were interviewed, including some who had never before spoken to a reporter about their work.