Who are the “bad apples” bite mark experts consider to be the cause of the bad press about their results in court? The answer may surprise you.
Pattern matching in forensic science is a major component in criminal investigations. Unfortunately, bite mark (forensic odontology) matching is the least reliable in its use to convict criminals. 24 innocent men wrongfully convicted comprise the core proof. AP Impact
Ballistics, tire tread, shoe print, fingerprints, and tool mark experts seldom, if ever, disagree in court. Dentists presenting bite evidence in court literally never agree. In fact, the cases where only a prosecution dentist testifies are prone to appellate remand or reversal if the court does not allow (usually a monetary decision) the defense to retain their own dentist to review and testify in rebuttal. Reversals also have occurred when defense attorneys have not requested their own bite mark expert.
The prosecutorial effect of bite mark “matches” between a defendant’s teeth to a skin injury are significant. It indicates violent contact between a victim and the defendant which is tantamount to the “smoking gun” cliché seen regularly in crime and detective novels.
But what is wrong with battling dentists in criminal courts? Judges expect this as a product of the judicial system’s “adversarial” concept. Lawyers seek out experts to support their theories of guilt or innocence as a matter of course.
This is evidence that the reliability of the methods and interpretations are suspect and its validity chimerical. How does one answer this question of reliability? A recent judicial opinion to bite mark “matching” took declarations from the Innocence Project and full time bite mark and other researchers about this unreliability issue and rejected their arguments. The ruling was verbal and Manhattan court Judge Maxwell Riley’s reasoning is as yet unpublished. The proponents of bite mark “matching” are thrilled. What saved the day for them in this particular case is encapsulated by this reported quote from the dentist featured in the AP article:
“The problem lies in the analyst or the bias,” said Dr. Frank Wright, a forensic dentist (and a past ABFO president ) 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.”
Testimony in the NY case from another forensic dentist reveals a similar mindset.
“The issue is not that bite mark analysis is invalid, but that bite mark examiners are not properly vetted,” he said.
It should be noted that this bite mark expert, a Dr. David Senn (another past ABFO president), directs a 5 1/2 day “symposium” in Texas which charges dentists $2000 to receive training recognized towards membership in the American Board of Forensic Odontology. “Bitemark Management” is a major component in his curricula. Vetting is his business. All the symposium’s principal dentist faculty are ABFO members.
These statements embody the theory that some “bad apples” out there have caused all the problems relating to the 24 men wrongfully convicted or incarcerated aided by bite mark experts.
So who ARE these wrongdoers “polluting” the “not invalid” methods of these crime fighting experts? My last blog presented the geographical distribution of wrongful convictions.
You might be surprised about the dentists involved.
Here’s the first case.
Dr. Robert Barlsey
Defendant: Willie Jackson
This man spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. At Jackson’s trial, Dr. Robert Barsley, recent past president of both the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) (108 members) AND the much larger (>7000 members) American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), told the jury that the bite marks on the victim matched Jackson, testifying: “My conclusion is that Mr. Jackson is the person who bit this lady.” On May 26, 2006, Willie Jackson was exonerated after post-conviction DNA testing proved his innocence in a 1986 sexual assault case. Ultimately, the DNA evidence showed that it was Willie Jackson’s brother, Milton Jackson, who attacked and raped the victim. (1) Dr, Barsley is also a lawyer and an acting magistrate in Louisiana.
(1) http://www.innocenceproject.org/ Content/Willie_Jackson.php; Jackson v. Day, No. Civ. A. 95-1224, 1996 WL 225021, at *1 (E.D. La. May 2, 1996);
rev’d, 121 F.3d 705 (5th Cir. 1997); Barsley 1989 trial court testimony, transcript available at http://www.law.virginia.edu/pdf/faculty/garrett/innocence/jackson.pdf.