Bitemark Identification Debunked? : People are still teaching dentists unreliable forensics

Sunday’s New York Times  piece on how “DNA Changed Forensic Science” was also an allegory. Much is in writing in the media about the deficiencies of bitemark identification. The 2009 landmark National Academies of Science Report on “Strengthening the Forensic Sciences was adamant about this forensic dental method’s failures to meet thresholds of validity (proofs of what they do is correct) and reliability (its adherents’ analyses and court cases reflect close agreement). This has been resonating in the press and courts ever since. 

The practitioners’ response to the NAS has been blunt. Bitemarks are still as good as DNA. The leaders of the AAFS/ABFO clearly say in court and in public that a conspiracy between the Innocence Project and bitemark opponents (one said “bitemark killers”) misled the NAS to an erroneous decision.

They and others have said the NAS investigators were not true “forensic scientists.”

The co-chairman of the NAS forensic committee, the Honorable Harry T. Edwards  profiled  these types of responses in 2011.

So, the obvious question of “whom is still performing bitemark analysis these days?” is clear. But “who, if any, are still teaching these methods” is the next logical question.

The University of Texas in San Antonio still does.

Its curricula includes “bitemark collection and analysis.” On this link you will find human-caused bitemark images taken with normal light, and “skin penetrating” special light first proposed by the famous bitemark expert, Michael West and which is still in use. Regardless of what lighting is used, these images show features that a reasonable person should opine are only “class characteristics” commonly seen in the human population. The ultimate argument in bitemark cases is what is “unique” versus “common.” The scientific literature on dental “uniqueness” was a 1980’s study that looked at 10 sets of identical  twins whose teeth marks were arbitrarily set into dental wax and clay as a substitute for skin. Non-compelling to say the least, but it is a pillar reference in the founding bitemark cases throughout the United States in the 80’s and 90’s.

And the Dade County Medical Examiners’ Office (Miami) just finished a program teaching “Process bite marks from DNA to excision.”

This is a euphemism on how to still bring dentists into court to talk about “pattern analysis” of tooth marks in skin with their brand of “probability” opinions. Don’t ask about having any data on the subject. It does not exist, but is still promised. However, a recently published $715,000 NIJ study  clearly struck out in that regard.

The bitemark faculty in both “symposia” are nearly the same. Members of the AAFS/ABFO bitemark adherents are the teachers. On the ABFO website you will find links to their Workshops on bitemarks still available at their meeting conjoined with the AAFS. Bitemark evidence is not the only subject presented at these short courses. Human identification from teeth (deceased) and cranial structures is presented along with mass disaster preparation for dentists. The NAS 2009 Report has no criticisms on these truly major contributions of dental forensics.

The multiple day courses cost from $1000 to $2000 for tuition. Travel, lodging, etc. are on those who attend. All in all, I would skip the bitemark comparison sections and focus on other subjects such as DNA collection preservation (if available) , physical anthropology (i.e. skeletons), critical thinking within the forensic sciences, rules of scientific evidence and case presentations where DNA has overturned bitemark opinions ( an optimistic hope of mine).


About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
This entry was posted in Bitemarks, criminal justice, Forensic Science, Forensic Science Bias, forensic science reform and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Bitemark Identification Debunked? : People are still teaching dentists unreliable forensics

  1. H.J.Smy says:

    Reblogged this on forensics4educators and commented:
    What could this mean to the many cases that have been passed through the criminal justice system based on this evidence…

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