Posts Tagged ‘dna exoneration’

The “Junk Science” Behind Bite Mark Analysis

Taylor Thornton — March 19, 2018 @ 3:21 PM — Comments (2)

Image result for bite mark analysis

Bite mark analysis is a portion of forensic odontology. It is a way to match marks on a victim’s body with a potential perpetrator’s teeth patterns, based on the theory that the victim was bitten by the suspect. Across the country in many different cases, bite mark evidence has been used at trial. Often, the bite mark evidence is the most powerful forensic evidence going against a defendant.

The problem is, bite mark analysis has no real science or research supporting it. There are a number of reasons why testimony regarding bite mark analysis can be incredibly flawed. One reason is that when comparing a suspect’s teeth to a bite mark on a victim, it is not nearly the same as comparing to an impression made at a dentist’s office. Typically the suspects teeth are being compared to a bite into soft tissue or skin. Human skin can heal, it can swell, the body may have even decayed between the time of the crime and when the body was discovered. All of these things can warp the clarity of the bite mark and damage the accuracy of trying to match up a dental impression with the bite. In addition, the teeth of the suspect are typically being compared to a photo of the bite rather than the actual bite, which further skews the reliability.

Another reason why bite mark evidence can be very misleading is that it is presented in court as being right alongside DNA evidence. This is simply not true, DNA is definitively unique to every individual person but bite patterns are simply not this scientifically unique. In fact, it is not even close. Different analysts have come to vastly different conclusions while evaluating the same bite mark evidence. It is dangerous to present such a subjective opinion as scientific physical evidence in court because that kind of evidence is highly persuasive to a jury.

Some experts say that bite mark evidence should only be used to eliminate a potential suspect based on the bite mark not being able to have come from them. At best, bite mark testimony should only conclude that the suspect cannot be excluded from the possibility of inflicting that bite. But, according to forensic dentists, if a bite mark is the only physical evidence against the suspect and the claim is that they are the only person who could have made that bite, that is junk not science.

Bite mark testimony has been responsible for numerous wrongful convictions. One notable case is that of Kennedy Brewer. Brewer was convicted of raping and killing a three-year old girl who was found in lake with several marks on her body that forensic odontologists deemed to be bite marks. It is unclear whether these marks could have come from animals or bugs living in the lake or whether the marks had any scientific integrity after the body had decayed in a body of water. Nevertheless, bite mark testimony convicted Kennedy Brewer of capital murder and sent him to death row. When Brewer was exonerated through post-conviction DNA tests, another innocent man was also able to be exonerated. Levon Brooks was serving his sentence for a very similar rape and murder. When the real perpetrator was found through DNA in Kennedy Brewer’s case, he was found to be responsible for the additional rape and murder that Brooks was convicted of.

Another notable case of wrongful conviction due to the influence of bite mark testimony is that of Ray Krone. After testimony in court from a bite mark expert saying that Krone’s teeth matched a bite mark on the victim, Krone was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. This bite mark analysis was the only physical evidence linking him to the crime. Ray Krone was released in 2002, after 10 years in prison, following DNA evidence proving his innocence. These men were fortunate enough to have their innocence proven. But, there are still countless others sitting in jail convicted of crimes because of the power of bite mark evidence testimony.

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Wyoming Man Officially Exonerated

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 23, 2013 @ 3:25 PM — Comments (0)

This past Friday, Rocky Mountain Innocence Center client Andrew Johnson was officially exonerated of his conviction in an aggravated burglary and sexual assault case in 1989. Mr. Johnson spent over 23 years in jail and consistently maintained his innocence.

In March 2013, Mr. Johnson was granted a new trial on the basis of newly discovered DNA evidence. The District Attorney decided not to retry him, leading to his exoneration.

This is Wyoming’s first DNA exoneration under a 2008 statute that provides access to postconviction DNA testing. Congratulations to RMIC and best wishes for a bright future, Andrew.

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More Exonerations, More Successes

Alejandra de la Fuente — July 18, 2013 @ 4:10 PM — Comments (1)

Two new exonerations were finalized this past week, freeing Joseph Frey of Wisconsin and Debra Brown of Utah. Frey spent twenty years in prison for the rape of a college student at knifepoint, but new DNA test results demonstrated that Frey was innocent and linked another man to the crime. The real perpetrator has also been connected to two subsequent rapes, which might have been prevented if the police had not initially pursued Frey.

Brown spent seventeen years in jail for the murder of her boss and family friend who she discovered dead in his home from three gunshot wounds. Brown’s attorney argued that the case against his client was circumstantial, and this past Friday she was found “factually innocent” of the murder. She is the first person to be exonerated through a 2008 Utah law that allows for non-DNA innocence claims.

Congratulations to the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project and the Wisconsin Innocence Project, who helped Brown and Frey achieve freedom, and to the exonerees. Best of luck to them as they embark on their next chapter!


Debra Brown celebrating her exoneration


Joseph Frey with his attorney (center) and sister (right)

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Uriah Courtney Exonerated in California

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 27, 2013 @ 3:21 PM — Comments (0)

This week a San Diego judge dismissed all charges against Uriah Courtney, a man who spent eight years in prison for a kidnapping and rape that he did not commit. Courtney was convicted in 2004 after a sexual assault in Lemon Grove, CA. The victim told the jury she was sure Courtney was the man who pulled her off the street.

The judge reversed the conviction after finding that the foreign biological material collected from the victim did not match Courtney’s DNA. Instead it matched that of a man who “bore striking physical resemblance to Courtney,” according to a news release from the California Western School of Law.

Courtney was aided by the California Innocence Project, who was able to complete DNA testing with the funding provided by the National Institute of Justice. A big shout out to everyone who worked on the case, including the CIP staff, attorneys, partners, and students. And congratulations to Uriah Courtney on his renewed lease on life!

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Damon Thibodeaux: The 300th DNA Exoneree in the U.S.

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 09, 2012 @ 10:00 AM — Comments (0)

As of Friday, the efforts of the Innocence Project made Damon A. Thibodeaux the 300th person in the US that DNA evidence has assisted in exonerating. DNA exonerees collectively total 4,013 years of wrongful imprisonment. Thirty-three of them were under 18 when they were arrested.

Thiboreaux walks out of prison

Damon Thibodeaux is the 300th DNA Exoneree. ~courtesy of Fox

The Innocence Project released a statement about Thibodeaux’s exoneration. In this quote, they try to look for the positive outcomes of all the innocent years spent in vein:

Fortunately, there are simple, common sense reforms that can prevent wrongful convictions and make sure law enforcement is focused on identifying the true perpetrators of crime. We owe it to the 300 men and women who have been exonerated to pass these reforms to help make sure that our criminal justice system is as accurate as possible. Fixing the system protects everyone because it ensures that the innocent go free and the real perpetrators are locked up and unable to commit other crimes.

People commonly assume that those who plead guilty must be guilty. Why would they say they did a crime they did not do? However, 28 of the 300 DNA exonerees pled guilty to the crimes they were convicted of despite their innocence. Thiboreaux is one of them.

In considering the textbook-botched job multiple parties did on Thibodeaux’s case, we can be thankful that he was saved from death row. He will no longer spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, waiting to be killed in accordance with Louisiana’s assessment of the murder and rape of his 14-year-old step-cousin, Crystal Champagne. Without the efforts of the Innocence Project and his attorneys he would have died because of eyewitness misidentification and police interrogation in the form of threats, lies, and a forced false confession.

2007-2012: The Period of Reinvestigation

The Jefferson Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to investigate what caused Thibodeaux’s imprisonment when his legal team and the Innocence Project brought evidence of his innocence to the District Attorney’s attention.

“I didn’t know that I had done it, but I done it,” Thibodeaux confessed to police in 1997.

They interrogated him for almost nine hours to glean this confession. Before he was convicted, he tried to retract his confession. However, the same judge that recently exonerated him would not hear his retraction and sentenced him.

Thibodeaux has now said: “At that point I was tired. I was hungry. All I wanted to do was sleep, and I was willing to tell them anything they wanted me to tell them if it would get me out of that interrogation room.”

The eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen a man pacing around the area where Champagne’s body was found identified Thibodeaux as that man. But the trial did not reveal the two defeating details of this identification. The news broadcasted Thibodeaux’s picture the day before on TV, and he was already in custody when the witnesses claimed to have seen him.

The Cord on the Tree

The victim was found with a piece of red electrical cord around her neck. It had been burned off of a larger piece of cord found on the tree above where police found her body.

During the interrogations, police used leading questions to provoke an exhausted suspect to admit to actions that agreed with the evidence from the crime scene. They revealed non-public details about the crime with these questions. So Thibodeaux revealed in his confession that he knew details that presumably only the police and perpetrator knew about, which lead to the jury’s conclusion that he must be the perpetrator.  It is sneaky and effective method, as it has been for plenty of other innocent people sent to prison.

He should not have known about the cord in the tree. Thibodeaux, in his confession, said he used a gray speaker wire from his car to strangle her. Even though he messed up the details, this was still enough for a conviction.

The cord tested positive for having blood on it in the original investigation, but it was not DNA tested. When later tested, it revealed the presence of male DNA that did not match that of Thibodeaux.

Outdated Science

Not only did he take a polygraph—which is a highly questionable assessment of the truth for how easy it is to tell the exact opposite truth—he was told at a later time that he failed the test.

The prosecution’s expert knew that he had been threatened with the death penalty during interrogation and confessed in spite of it. The defense never found out. The police also only recorded 54 minutes out of the 8 1/2 hour interrogation.

Read The Sky Valley Chronicle’s article on Thibodeaux’s release.

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America still slow to prioritize DNA exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 22, 2012 @ 1:57 PM — Comments (1)

News coverage during this past week has shown how courts across the country have not been placing due importance on presence of DNA evidence and why they should be.

Evidence of Virginia’s wrongful incarceration record has risen with their post-conviction DNA project’s release of DNA test results. DNA from 38 different crimes do not link to the people convicted for them. Only five of them have led to exonerations.

It was previously estimated that the wrongful conviction rate was 3%. This study indicates that the rate may actually be closer to 15%.

“As much as one in six convicted offenders in Virginia in the ’70s and ‘80s for sexual assault probably wasn’t the right person,” said John Roman who is leading the Urban Institute’s (Washington, D.C.) study of the results.

Roman finds this Virginia-specific study to be reflective of courts all around the country.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, said most prosecutors do not resist DNA testing. However, those in Illinois’ Cook and Lake Counties constantly reject cases brought forward, even with logical reasoning behind them.

In an earlier post, we discussed James Edwards’ appeals for testing the blood found at the scene of the murder he has now been exonerated of. Thanks to his efforts, the blood linked to another man who is now incarcerated for the crime. But had he not “wasted the time” of the courts, he would still be in prison.

Murder convict Dennis Dechaine, of one of the most-known murder cases in Maine, is awaiting DNA testing of more evidence from the crime scene. He believes the results will link to the real perpetrator. Dechaine has maintained his innocence for more than 24 years.

Prosecutor Bill Stokes said, “when you put this really unknown piece of evidence in the context with the other evidence in the case it’s overwhelming as to the guilt of Mr. Dechaine.”

Like any other piece of evidence, it should be considered side-by-side with all of the pertinent facts. Stokes should not be so sure of his assessment just yet.

According to the New England Cable News, the victim’s mother, Peg Cherry, said, “victims should have some rights, too, not just all criminals. Why they call it criminal justice, we want justice for the victims, too.”

While her plight is understandable, we must remember that true justice for the victim is true justice for the right criminal.

The Innocence Project also raised this issue here.

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