A popular Netflix series has called attention to the faulty science behind bite mark evidence.
Bite Mark Evidence
Bite mark evidence purports to be a branch of forensic odontology, where dentists attempt to match marks that were found at crime scenes to dental impressions of suspects. When a victim has been bitten during the commission of a crime, dentists claim the ability to match the bite mark to the teeth of a suspect.
Bite mark evidence has been used for many years in criminal prosecutions. Oftentimes, bite marks are found at the scene of violent crimes such as murders and assaults on areas like skin, clothing, and soft tissue.
Opponents to the use of bite mark evidence argue that is flawed because it is subjective to the person examining the evidence. Since skin stretches, it can easily be maneuvered into a position that seems like a match.
The California Innocence Project notes that, “Different experts have found widely different results when looking at the same bite mark evidence. Such subjectivity has no place being touted as science in the courtroom, as it is extremely persuasive to a jury, especially where someone has been wrongfully accused.”
Netflix Series “The Innocence Files”
The popular streaming company, Netflix, recently released a limited series entitled, “The Innocence Files,” which examines cases of wrongful convictions. In the first three episodes of the series, bite mark evidence is called into question.
In the first episode, the series introduces two men from Noxubee County in Mississippi: Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. In 1992, Brooks was convicted of the capital murder of three-year-old Courtney Smith. His conviction was supported by eyewitness testimony and bite mark evidence. Later that year, Brewer was convicted of the rape and murder of three-year-old Christine Jackson. His conviction was in part supported by bite mark evidence.
Forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West testified in both trials. In Brooks’ trial, Dr. West testified that “Levon’s dental impressions were a ‘really good match’ for a potential bite left on the victim’s wrist.” In his medical report, Dr. West opined “that ‘indeed and without a doubt the bite marks on Courtney were made by Levon Brooks.” In Brewer’s trial, Dr. West offered testimony about the presumed bite marks found on the victim and Brewer’s dental impressions. Brewer’s defense team retained a world-renowned forensic odontologist, Dr. Richard Souviron, to rebut Dr. West’s claims; however, the jury ultimately found Brewer guilty.
In 2000, Brewer reached out to the Innocence Project for help proving his innocence. The Innocence Project tested the DNA of the victim’s rape kit, which excluded Brewer as the source of the semen. Further investigation revealed another possible suspect for the murders of Christine Jackson and Courtney Smith—a man who had a previous record of multiple home invasions in the same community, Justin Albert Johnson. Johnson’s DNA matched the DNA found in Christine Jackson’s rape kit. He eventually confessed to the murder of both girls; however, he denied ever biting either one.
As a result of Johnson’s confessions, Brooks and Brewer were exonerated for their convictions. According to the documentary, Dr. West’s expert testimonies have contributed to 6 known wrongful convictions.