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    N.Y. judge allows bite-mark evidence

    Some question reliability of data in criminal cases

    Dental molds were used in research by Dr. Mary Bush at the University of Buffalo, N.Y. Her findings call into question techniques used for bite-mark evidence in court cases.
    David Duprey/Associated Press/file
    Dental molds were used in research by Dr. Mary Bush at the University of Buffalo, N.Y. Her findings call into question techniques used for bite-mark evidence in court cases.

    NEW YORK — A judge ruled Thursday he would allow bite-mark evidence that might connect a murder suspect to the victim, a decision that disappointed those who hoped the case would help them banish the forensic technique from the nation’s courtrooms.

    Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley’s decision followed lengthy testimony last year that went to the heart of the reliability of bite-mark analysis, which involves comparing marks left on the flesh of victims with the teeth of suspects.

    At least 24 men convicted or charged with murder or rape based on bite marks found on victims have been exonerated in the United States since 2000, according to a June report by Associated Press based on decades of court records, archives, news reports, and filings by the Innocence Project, which helps wrongfully convicted inmates win freedom through DNA testing.


    Many of those exonerated spent more than a decade in prison, including time on death row.

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    In Thursday’s case, Wiley said he would explain the reasoning behind his ruling in a written decision.

    He indicated his basic finding was that ‘‘the field of bite-mark analysis comports with the standards of evidence under New York law.’’ He added: ‘‘It’s obviously a field that has not been looked at closely by the courts in a long time.’’

    Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project, was at the hearing Thursday and said Wiley’s decision was ‘‘contrary to the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.’’

    ‘‘It’s a victory for the Flat Earth Society,’’ he said.


    The Innocence Project and other defense attorneys slam bite-mark analysis as sham science and argue it should no longer be allowed in courtrooms.

    Many forensic dentists defend the practice as useful, especially when trying to eliminate suspects, and said it has helped convict murderers and rapists, most famously serial killer Ted Bundy.

    The New York case involves the murder of 33-year-old Kristine Yitref, whose beaten and strangled body was found in garbage bags under a bed in a hotel near Times Square in 2007.

    A forensic dentist concluded that a mark on her body matched the teeth of Clarence Brian Dean, a 41-year-old fugitive sex offender from Alabama.

    Dean told police he killed Yitref in self-defense, saying she and another man attacked him in a robbery attempt after he agreed to pay her for sex; no other man was found.


    Dean awaits trial on a murder charge. His attorney declined to comment after the hearing Thursday.

    Prosecutors wanted the bite-mark evidence allowed at his trial to help persuade jurors of Dean’s guilt. His defense attorneys wanted it barred because of past mistakes involving the practice and how powerful bite-mark evidence can be to jurors, even with opposing testimony.

    Dr. David Senn, a San Antonio forensic dentist, testified in last year’s hearings that bite-mark analysis is valid when used in a closed population of suspects and that problems of the past can be blamed on individual dentists, not the science itself.

    ‘‘The issue is not that bite-mark analysis is invalid, but that bite-mark examiners are not properly vetted,’’ he said.

    He added that he couldn’t imagine a case today in which he would identify a biter unless ‘‘there was other very strong corroborating evidence.’’

    Testifying for defense attorneys at the hearings was Dr. Mary Bush, a researcher at the University of Buffalo who has used computer models to study bite marks made on dead bodies using pliers and dental models. Her research, which has been published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, found that human dentition is not unique and cannot be accurately transferred to skin.

    Bush admitted that a significant limitation of her research is that she used dead bodies that had been frozen and thawed and used machinery to create bite marks.