Forensic dentistry, matching body wounds with the dentition of the accused. has played a role in hundreds of murder and rape cases, sometimes helping to put defendants on death row. The New York Times says mounting evidence shows that the technique is prone to bias and unreliable. Disputed bite-mark identification is at the center of an appeal filed yesterday at 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. He was convicted after what many experts call a far-fetched match of his teeth to purported bite wounds, found 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 U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s but whose freewheeling methods “put a huge black eye on bite-mark evidence,” said Dr. Richard Souviron, a Florida-based dental expert. Snce 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, says The Innocence Project. Without glaring new proof of innocence, courts have been reluctant to reopen cases based on even the most dubious of dental claims, says the Innocence Project’s Chris Fabricant.