The Intercept has obtained a draft report of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) titled “Forensic Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods.” In it, they cover multiple common pattern forensic practices such as bite-mark analysis, fingerprint analysis, and DNA mixture analysis to discuss whether or not they can be considered scientifically valid for purposes of introduction in the courtroom.
The draft states that “PCAST finds that bitemark analysis does not meet the scientific standards for foundational validity.” This marks an important transition in forensics for criminal cases, as bite-mark analysis has been used for the last few decades as a way to sway a jury towards a conviction. In fact, it has been widely reported that from the 1990s to today, at least 24 people have been found innocent post-conviction after being wrongfully convicted based on the faulty nature of bite-mark evidence.
Bite-mark evidence has gone through intense scrutiny in recent years, especially as more studies have come out doubting its accuracy. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences put out a report titled A Path Forward that called out bite-mark analysis among other forensic evidence as faulty and unreliable. “Much forensic evidence—including, for example, bite marks and firearm and tool mark identifications—is introduced in criminal trials without any meaningful scientific validation, determination of error rates, or reliability testing to explain the limits of the discipline,” said the report. However, even that wasn’t enough to completely invalidate its use in the courtroom.
Radley Baiko, a reporter for The Washington Post, has written extensively about bite-mark analysis’ shaky history. In 2015, he wrote a four-part series exploring how faulty bite-mark analysis put an innocent man in jail. This is not an uncommon story as Baiko wrote a similar one early this year in February, citing two more cases where bite-mark analysis had lead to a skewed conviction. In fact, the Innocence Project has identified 24 recorded wrongful convictions that were due, at least in part, to a bite-mark analysis, where the individual was later exonerated by DNA. “The real problem is that we’ve entrusted judges to be the gatekeepers of science in the courtroom, and they’ve fulfilled that function about as well as you might expect from people trained in law, not science — pretty poorly,” says Baiko.
Another big problem mentioned in the report is the apparent misconception that teeth marks are as unique as DNA. In 2007, the New York Times wrote an article about the dangers of claiming absolute certainty in findings discovered by bite-mark analysis, especially considering most forensic orthodontists are not regulated. “If you say that this bite fits this person and nobody else in the world, and if you use the bite mark as the only piece of physical evidence linking an attacker to his victim, that’s not science — that’s junk,” said Dr.Richard Souviron, chief forensic odontologist at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office, in the article.
Once the full report is released, which The Intercept says could be as soon as this month, we will begin to see the effects that this report will have on bite-mark forensics’ influence on the criminal justice system and the work of post-conviction lawyers across the country. Currently, IPF represents one individual wrongfully convicted based on this junk science and it is our hope that this report will play an integral role in achieving his exoneration.
Do you think that the controversy of bite-mark analysis will lead to a decrease in testing for criminal cases? Or do you think bite-mark analysis still has a place in the criminal justice system, no matter how minimal? For more details, click here for the full article on The Intercept.