In courtrooms across the country, it has been upheld as scientific, and therefore infallible.
Forensic bite mark analysis was used as an essential piece of evidence to convict everyone from accused grocery store robbers to infamous rapists and murderers.
But as our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers and the rest of the country would later learn, the science was flimsy and tinged with bias. The evidence wasn’t beyond question or reproach. In fact, as we have learned in more than two dozen cases thus far, bite mark forensics were flat-out wrong, sending innocent men to prison for years, sometimes decades, for crimes we now know there was zero chance they could have committed.
Bite mark analysis, if you aren’t familiar, was said to be the science of matching the impression made by human teeth on an object or flesh with a suspect’s dental records in order to declare a definitive match.
The first known criminal case in which it was used was a grocery store robbery, during which the alleged suspect reportedly bit into a hunk of cheese discarded at the scene. Within 25 years, it was used in the widely-televised Florida homicide trial of accused serial killer Ted Bundy, who was ultimately convicted. That trial made bite mark analysis all the rage in courtrooms across the country.
Bundy may well have been guilty. However, the “science” used to convict him – and dozens of others after him – is riddled with errors. In fact, it’s now widely accepted that there is no independent scientific proof that teeth can be undoubtedly matched to a bite mark in the human skin.
Those dentists who had been testifying in court as to the accuracy of these claims did not have to undergo any sort of rigorous certification process. Oversight regarding the legitimacy and accuracy of their findings was scant. They were paid handsomely for their testimony, which always favored the prosecution. And there was no potential repercussions if they got it wrong – which clearly, they often did.
Today, very few prosecutors – if any – will dare to use bite mark analysis in serious felony cases, likely because they know that barring an overwhelming amount of additional evidence, the case isn’t likely to withstand defense scrutiny. (And prosecutors had other overwhelming evidence, there would be no need to taint it with this pseudoscience.)
Plus, forensic bite mark analysis has been largely replaced with the advances in DNA analysis.
To be sure, we have come a long way in making substantial progress in the field of forensic science. But it’s worth noting that even with DNA, science doesn’t always get it right. We have previously written about the flaws uncovered at various crime laboratories across the country. From Boston to Los Angeles, there have been cases where we have later learned that blood samples in DUI cases were improperly analyzed or DNA evidence was potentially contaminated or even misrepresented.
Some of the largest and most respected crime laboratories in the nation have found themselves on the receiving end of such harsh criticism. This is not to say that such evidence can’t be valuable in the courtroom. But as defense lawyers, we take very seriously our responsibility to carefully scrutinize all of the evidence to ensure that you aren’t going to be wrongly convicted on the basis of bad science.