Sunday, September 21, 2014

Dental analysis as crime solving tool under scrutiny

The use of expert testimony to match body wounds with dental records of the accused has played a role in hundreds of murder and rape cases. However, mounting evidence has shown that matching body wounds to a suspect’s dentition is prone to bias and unreliable, according to the New York Times.

A disputed bite-mark identification is at the center of an appeal that was filed Monday 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 buried and 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,” in the words of Dr. Richard Souviron, a Florida-based dental expert who helped identify Ted Bundy in 1979, in an interview last week.

Since 2000, at least 17 people convicted of murder or rape based on “expert” bite matches have been exonerated and freed, usually because DNA tests showed they had been wrongfully accused, according to research by the Innocence Project in New York. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases.

In six additional cases, one involving Dr. West and one involving Dr. Souviron, indictments and arrests linked to bite-mark identifications were dropped after new evidence showed that the matches were wrong.

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.

One of them is Mr. Howard. His appeal cites the scientific consensus that bite-mark identifications are unreliable, and questions the methods used by Dr. West. The appeal to reverse his conviction, prepared by the Mississippi Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi, also cites newly completed DNA testing that found no traces of Mr. Howard on the murder weapon, the body or elsewhere at the crime scene.

Georgia Kemp, a reclusive 84-year-old in Columbus, Miss., had been stabbed to death and was partially dressed when police found her body among smoldering fires in her rundown house in 1992. The medical examiner found bruises “consistent with” rape but no hair or semen to prove it.
In the absence of fingerprints or witnesses, it was understandable when the police turned to Mr. Howard as a person of interest: Only four months earlier, he had gone to Columbus after spending most of the two previous decades in prison for attempted rapes.

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