Forensic Dentistry: When Teeth Tell a Deadly Tale, Pt. II

In this conclusion of our two-part series on forensic dentistry, we explore the questionable science behind the conviction of criminals based on their bite.

By Susan Richards

As discussed in Part I, forensic dentists and anthropologists have used teeth and DNA to successfully identify those long dead, as well as victims of more recent natural disasters. The American Dental Association’s definition of forensic odontology includes the evaluation of perimortem trauma and bitemark analysis, which are more focused on identifying a potential perpetrator rather than the victim.

The first use of bitemark evidence in the modern legal system didn’t even include a living victim, per se. In 1954, an accused burglar was told to bite into a piece of cheese after a similar block of cheese containing teeth marks was found at the crime scene. A firearms expert – and later a dentist – determined they were a match, and the hungry thief was eventually convicted.

To Catch a Killer?

In an earlier Incisor article exploring dastardly dental professionals, most criminals were tripped up by detective work, eyewitnesses, hubris, or questionable judgment. (Pro tip: Do not google how to murder your wife!) How ironic it would have been if one of them had been convicted based on bitemark analysis, a forensic tool put on trial in recent years.

The scientific-sounding terminology that includes bitemark and tool mark analysis, voice spectrometry, hair microscopy, and blood splatter analysis all gained momentum in the 1960s and 70s due in part to several high-profile criminal cases but were developed outside the purvey of science – often by law enforcement itself. Legal advocates like Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Litigation at the Innocence Project, refers to these tools as “junk science.”

“Most of the new theories emerged not from a scientific laboratory but from a crime scene,” Fabricant explained in a 2022 interview with The Guardian. “An enterprising investigator would think, ‘Maybe I could match this suspect’s teeth to the bite on this victim’s nose – that would prove the suspect is the murderer.’”

Television shows and entertainment-style documentaries through the years like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Files have glamorized this dubious form of crime detection to the point where jurors may be convinced that “expert testimony” is an infallible scientific fact – when often it’s not.

Forensic Dentistry vs. Junk Science

Fabricant’s arguments over wrongful convictions based on junk science have been strongly vindicated over the last 15 years. The core concept of bitemark evidence is that human dentition is as unique as fingerprints and that skin would consistently record those individual markings – and that a forensic dentist could accordingly determine who did the biting.

However, a study released in 2009 led by a forensic dentist and associate professor at the University of Buffalo School of Dental Medicine took a groundbreaking bite out of that theory. Further research in 2015 and 2016 was followed by an official draft review in 2022 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, finding that sufficient data do not support forensic bitemark analysis.

For better or for worse, here are some of the well-documented cases of those whose lives were impacted by bitemark analysis:

Rev. George Burroughs | During the infamous witch trials, a Salem, Massachusetts, minister was arrested when local girls accused him of recruiting them for the dark arts. The only evidence was bite marks he allegedly left on some of the “victims.” He was convicted and hung after the prosecution pried the reverend’s mouth open to compare his teeth to the marks on the girls.

Wayne Boden | Considered to be the first murderer in North America to earn a conviction based on forensic odontological evidence, Wayne Boden was a Canadian serial killer nicknamed “The Vampire Rapist” when he was tried for the deaths of four women. A cast was made of his teeth, and a local orthodontist demonstrated 29 similar points between the cast and a bite on one of the victims.

Ted Bundy | Arguably, Theodore Bundy was the most notorious criminal linked to dental identification. After a brutal crime spree that began in the Pacific Northwest, the serial killer was captured but famously escaped twice before making it to Florida in 1978 and killing again. It was there that his distinctive occlusion and chipped teeth finally sealed his fate.

26 Innocent People | At the time of this writing, 26 people convicted based on bitemark evidence have been exonerated, largely thanks to the research mentioned above and Chris Fabricant’s efforts through the Innocence Project. Many more remain behind bars, and his mission continues in the fight against junk science.

Science and technology are advancing rapidly, making it even easier for anthropologists, medical examiners, and law enforcement to do their jobs. And while sometimes the evidence misleads or prevaricates, forensic dentists continue to translate the stories teeth can tell.

(Read Pt. I here)

If you're not yet subscribed to receive the Incisor newsletter, filled with cutting-edge dental news sent directly to your inbox twice a month, you can do so here.

Author: Susan Richards is a staff writer at DOCS Education who confesses to a fascination with true crime. With over 20 years of experience in local journalism and business marketing, Susan’s career includes award-winning feature writing, as well as creating content with context for a wide variety of industries.

DOCS Membership

Upcoming Events
Atlanta, GA skyline
August 23- 24, 2024
October 04- 05, 2024
February 28- 01, 2025

More Articles