A few weeks ago, I discussed some problems with bite mark analysis. It seems at least one forensic dentist agrees with me. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist, testified 81 times that bite marks on people’s bodies matched the teeth of suspects, but he no longer believes in his own specialty.
In a deposition obtained by The Clarion-Ledger, Mr. West said, “I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis. I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA.” Previously in court he had emphasized how reliable bite mark evidence was and said that each mark was unique. Unfortunately, he was both wrong and successful at helping prosecutors get convictions. Cases he testified on are now being reviewed:
Two of those convicted in a 2001 aggravated assault case in which West testified, Leigh Stubbs and Tami Vance, are now receiving a new trial. They are both out on bond and will be arraigned today in Brookhaven.
Here’s to hoping that every state will soon prohibit this type of testimony.
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Fingerprints
Bite mark analysis is an area of “science” that is unique to crime investigation. Forensic dentists are usually self-employed and have no oversight. There are no rules or regulations governing the industry, and no government entity has ever reviewed the validity of bite mark evidence.
From the start, bite mark analysis has been a dubious science. As the Chicago Tribune outlined, the field was born in 1970 when eight dentists sought to seek recognition from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences as a legitimate way to identify criminals, but they needed 10 members. They scoured the meeting rooms and were able to find 2 other pathologists who also happened to hold dental degrees.
The field hasn’t improved much since then. 42 years later and forensic dentists still disagree about whether or not a particular mark is even a bite. Thanks to DNA testing, we now know that innocent people have been convicted in cases where the primary evidence was bogus bite mark analysis.
A bite leaves an imperfect impression on the skin, and irregularities in bodies cause distortions. Furthermore, teeth, unlike DNA or fingerprints, are impermanent. Even a study conducted by the American Board of Forensic Odontology found a 63.5% rate of false identifications, and yet courts continue to accept bite mark analysis into evidence.