In one of the country’s first nationally televised criminal trials, of serial murderer Ted Bundy in Florida in 1979, jurors and viewers were transfixed as dental experts showed how Bundy’s crooked teeth resembled a bite on a 20-year-old victim.
Bundy was found guilty, and the field of “forensic dentistry” won a place in the public imagination.
Since then, expert testimony matching body wounds with the bite marks of the accused has played a role in hundreds of murder and rape cases, sometimes helping put defendants on Death Row.
But over this same period, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is unreliable and prone to bias.
A disputed bite-mark identification is at the center of an appeal that was to be filed yesterday with the Mississippi Supreme Court. Eddie Lee Howard Jr., 61, has been on Death Row for two decades for the murder and rape of an 84-year-old woman, convicted largely because of what many experts call a far-fetched match of his teeth to purported bite wounds, discerned only after the woman’s body had been exhumed.
The identification was made by Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who was sought out by prosecutors across the country in the 1980s and 1990s but whose freewheeling methods “put a huge black eye on bite-mark evidence,” Dr. Richard Souviron, a Florida-based dental expert who helped identify Bundy in 1979, said in an interview last week.
Still, without glaring new proof of innocence, courts have been reluctant to reopen cases based on even the most dubious of dental claims, leaving scores more defendants with questionable convictions to languish in prison or on Death Row, said Chris Fabricant, the Innocence Project’s director of strategic litigation.
West retired as an expert witness several years ago to a dental practice after, according to his resume, investigating more than 5,200 deaths and more than 300 bite marks over 29 years.
In a deposition in 2012, West indicated a striking shift in thinking, saying he no longer believed that bite marks were as unique as fingerprints, that bite-mark analysis was open to error and that, with the availability of DNA testing, it should not be used in court.
The lack of a scientific basis for bite-mark identification was stressed by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2009 report. The academy said such analysis could not reliably identify one individual, among all others, as the source of a bite.