A law professor has an impressive blog post that elaborates on the dangers of bad forensic science leading to executions of innocent defendants. Read it here. He also has a few things to say about bitemark identification. A recent bitemark case interests him and he’s got some points similar to mine. A synopsis of my bitemark travels follows below. I wish I could find a prosecutor with enough savvy to figure this stuff out and be just astute enough to be reasonable about it. One must go to Australia to find a judiciary that has learned from its mistakes (starting in 1986).
I have been involved in multiple cases where bite mark identification was admitted by prosecutors as “scientific” evidence to convict. Many have been at the trial court level where I have opposed the “elite” members within the forensic bitemark association connection, AAFS/ABFO. I have been of some aid in exoneration litigation resulting in the the release of eight innocent men. Others are still in prison because of bitemark opinions.
Until 2012, I had also been a “Diplomate” (certainly an impressive title) of the ABFO, (for 22 years; I actually had a 4 or 5 year tenure on their Exam and Certification committee and a couple terms on their board of directors) and as such, I was opposing dentists within my own (small) organization which still “certifies” its applicants as peer-reviewed forensic dental examiners. It was dicey to say the least for some of my collegial brethren. Within all these years, I have never opposed any report or testimony involving human identification via autopsy exams and dental records (i.e., dental identification). I oppose bitemark evidence used to convict in courts. See Bowers
I voluntarily resigned from the ABFO almost exactly two years ago. Let’s just say that the ABFO leadership (but not necessarily all its 90 members) and I had never seen eye-to-eye for about 17 years. There is a chronology to this. It started here. And to this (Chapter 37, co-authored with UCLA Professor Jennifer Mnookin, previously by ASU Professor Michael J. Saks; since 2000).Then onto the NAS, as reviewed by the Innocence Project in 2009. The NAS report section on bitemarks cited my meta-data research on combination DNA and bitemark cases). There is more: this and especially this.
The back room rancor (which now has become front room ) caused by my very public position regarding the dangers of their continuing proclamations of reliability finally erased my philosophy of “working within the organization” to encourage professional self-assessment of all their alarming “bad cases.” My technical writing suggested pulling back from the “gray-beards” who, in the 1980’s, used their ground-breaking criminal cases (try Ted Bundy for the best known case and many less news worthy bitemark cases) which most of them proudly labeled “the first case of bitemark evidence in the State of _______.” You can add your own state in the blank. All 50 still allow these methods into court. About 1/3 use the outdated Frye Rule from 1923 and the rest use Daubert from 1993. Both say if there is a “general acceptance” by “relevant” practitioners then its good enough for the courts. Apparently the NAS isn’t scientific enough. Don’t expect trial judges to separate the scientifically substandard offerings of the ABFO experts. They were liberal arts majors before law school and think (shudder) like lawyers. They love to argue hypotheicals ( i.e. what if?) rather than science (double shudder). Judges HATE to get reversed on appeal and therefore stay within boundaries from previous case acceptance of bitemarks. Their selectivity ignores 24 erroneous convictions and arrests substantially aided by pro-prosecutorial bitemark evidence.
I have kept my membership (for 30 years now) in the AAFS as a “Fellow” as it contains multiple forensic disciplines that honestly work on making their forensic services reproducible and meet the demands of better scientific methods head on. I particularly applaud the forensic anthropology section of the AAFS for their recent review and publication regarding certain cranial (skull) landmarks that are not reliable as a basis for complete indentification. They did this as a group project ( 101 members) and by committee (within the AAFS and their certifying board, the ABFA , which reached a general consensus. These landmarks had been used for decades yet they didn’t flinch to investigate their own work. Bravo for them.
My ex-forensic dental group, the ABFO can’t hold a candle to them. The current ABFO president, a Peter Loomis, remarked (in part) in a recent Nature article that bitemarks on skin are still useful to identify the differences between dog bites and a human bite. Speaking of disorganization, they many times they can’t reliably agree what is a bitemark in court.
I have no idea why he didn’t say, “injuries on victims of violent crime that appear to be bitemarks should be analyzed for residual saliva DNA. Bitemarks and overlaying garments are excellent sources of DNA. This DNA, if properly collected and processed, may lead to the identification of the perpetrator.”