Texas Courts Downgrade Bite Mark Analysis

Mar 22, 2016, by Dr. Becky Coats
Forensic dentistry has become a part of the scientific approach to crime fighting popularized on shows like CSI. Paul Revere is often described as the first forensic dentist in the US, but the origin of the bite mark analysis goes back to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692, where Reverend George Burroughs was convicted of conspiring with the devil because the judges thought that his teeth matched marks on three girls who said he was trying to recruit them as witches. He was hanged.

Just two months later, the witch trials ended, with lead witch hunter Cotton Mather saying that “spectral and intangible” evidence should not be used in criminal trials. And 20 years later, Burroughs was declared innocent by a court and his children compensated for the wrongful execution of their father.


Getting “Junk Science” out of the Courtroom

Although bite mark analysis has been used in hundreds of trials in the US, including the case of serial killer Ted Bundy, this year Texas has decided it is no longer admissible as evidence in criminal trials, following a series of wrongful convictions that relied on this evidence. One such case was the conviction of Dallas construction worker Steven Chaney, who was convicted of stabbing his drug dealer on the basis of bite marks found on the dealer. Chaney spent 28 years in prison for the murder before being released. Chaney was the 26th person convicted on the basis of bite mark analysis who was recently released.

When bite mark experts were asked simple questions like: what standards are used to match a bite to a person. Instead,experts disagree about how this should be done. The Texas Forensic Science Commission said it would not support bite mark analysis until researchers could agree on at least that much. Commissioners also wanted to learn about how forensic dentists can account for changes in the skin after a bite. In general, they said, they won’t accept bite evidence as conclusive until forensic dentists present more science that supports bite mark evidence and overcomes some of the studies that show uncertainty.

The Bite Is Dynamic

Part of the problem with bite mark analysis is that your bite isn’t a simple hinge setup. Instead, the temporomandibular joint is probably the most complex joint in the body, capable of all types of movements under the best circumstances. This flexibility helps your jaw perform all the complex functions you require of it, but under circumstances where bite mark evidence comes into play, it creates uncertainty in the types of marks left by teeth.

The flexibility in the jaw also makes it vulnerable to problems like temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ), which can lead to a diverse range of symptoms like jaw pain, headaches, and more.

If you are experiencing symptoms that you think might be related to your bite problems, please call (817) 481-6888 for an appointment with a Grapevine neuromuscular dentist at Grapevine Dental Care today.