Among failed forensic methods, virtually no type of evidence that has a worse record than bite mark analysis.
In my book Failed Evidence (NYU Press, Sept. 12), I say that courts must simply stop accepting bite mark analysis. It has no scientific basis whatever, and has been the source of numerous wrongful convictions. Now, a practitioner of this, um, method has spoken out, and lo and behold, I find myself agreeing with him. That’s because he now says there is nothing to it. Of course, this comes after years of testifying to the bite-based guilt of defendants in “dozens” of cases.
With thanks to the Innocence Blog, I see that Dr. Michael West of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, whose bite mark work has sent defendants to prison and even death row, no longer thinks bite mark analysis has any validity. A Mississippi newspaper reported that in a 2011 deposition, West said that that “I no longer believe in bite-mark analysis.” In fact, he went further: “I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”
Forensic odontology — the study and analysis of teeth for legal purposes — can be a useful tool. For example, it is often used, quite successfully, to identify human remains when nothing else can. But analyzing bite marks to identify perpetrators of crime has never had any scientific validity, and has been proven incorrect in case after case after so-called experts like West used bite marks to send innocent men and women to jail.
It’s worth noting that, even as West now disavows bite mark analysis, he somehow maintains that his work was correct. In two different cases of raped and murdered children, West’s bite mark testimony put two defendants behind bars, one on death row for 15 years, the other in prison for 18 years. When DNA proved that another man had committed both crimes, West refused to back down. “I never accused them of killing or raping anybody – just biting them while they were alive.”
Along with the reversal by the remarkable Dr. West, there’s news on the Wrongful Convictions Blog that Douglas Prade, a former police captain from Akron, Ohio, convicted of killing his ex-wife in a 1998 case largely on “bite mark” evidence, has been exonerated based on DNA.
There is only one real question about bite mark evidence: when will courts ban it? When is enough damage enough?