Bite-mark analysis linking suspects to crimes draws increased scrutiny
Crystal Weimer’s path to freedom started with a breakfast meeting in a Connecticut diner and ended with a celebratory dinner in a Uniontown Red Lobster restaurant.
Attorney Jeff Bresch, representing Weimer in her appeal through the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, met with forensic dentist Constantine Karazulas at a diner in Fairfield, Conn., to talk about the dentist’s testimony at Weimer’s trial. Karazulas had testified that Weimer left a bite mark on Curtis Haith within minutes of his death in 2001 in Connellsville. Weimer was convicted of Haith’s murder in 2006, but increasing skepticism about the scientific validity of bite-mark analysis led Karazulas to travel to Uniontown and recant his testimony on Oct. 1.
What Karazulas had to say led a Fayette County judge to release Weimer from prison and grant her a new trial. The dentist now considers bite-mark analysis “junk science” and no longer could reach the conclusion he did in Weimer’s trial, Bresch said.
The next day, Bresch and Weimer celebrated her freedom with dinner at Red Lobster.
Weimer, who was serving a prison sentence of up to 30 years, is scheduled for trial Jan. 11. Karazulas could not be reached for comment.
“(Karazulas) wanted to right a wrong, if you will,” said Bresch, a partner with the Downtown law firm of Jones Day. “You don’t just jump on a plane without a subpoena to come down to Uniontown. But for that one, glaring mistake, Crystal wouldn’t have lost 12 years of her life.
“I think this is a movement, and a lot of jurisdictions and courts are looking at it.”
The use of bite-mark analysis, a branch of forensic odontology, to match a mark on a victim with a suspect’s teeth has come under increased scrutiny for lacking the standards, skepticism and reliability of other forms of forensic science.
Jules Epstein, a law professor at Temple University and volunteer for the Innocence Project, said there’s no standard for the number of similarities required to connect a bite mark to a suspect’s teeth, nor is there a database of dental molds to prove a person’s teeth are unique to that individual.
Less than two weeks after Weimer was freed to await a retrial, The Dallas Morning News reported that a judge in Texas released Steven Mark Chaney more than 25 years after he was convicted and imprisoned for a 1987 double murder.
The dentist in that case said bite marks on one of the victims had a “one to a million” chance of coming from someone other than Chaney, now 59. That dentist also backtracked, and prosecutors agreed that the testimony no longer stood up to scientific scrutiny.
Simply determining whether a mark was made by a bite at all can be debated, said Michael Sobel, a Squirrel Hill dentist, frequent consultant to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office and the only local analyst certified by the American Board of Forensic Odontology.
He recalled a 2001 case in Elyria, Ohio, in which he was called to rebut other dentists’ testimony that Dr. Ashok Ramadugu had bitten the inner thigh of a sedated patient. Sobel concluded that what prosecutors said was a bite mark actually was made by tape used to secured the woman’s catheter.
A judge acquitted the doctor of rape charges.
“If I do nothing else in my career in forensics, I feel good about that,” Sobel said. “I do not link a bite mark to a particular suspect unless I have a lot of points of comparison and I’m very confident we’re not going down a pathway that’s full of guesswork.”
In addition, marks left on victims’ skin might not exactly match the teeth that made them, Epstein said.
“(If you) bite your arm, the skin is going to wibble and wobble,” he said. “It’s not a surface that’s going to capture the perfect impression.”
Weimer’s case might be the only recent one in Western Pennsylvania that hinged on bite-mark evidence, according to prosecutors and Innocence Project volunteers. But if bite-mark analysis comes up in a trial or appeal, Epstein and other experts have signed onto a brief that lawyers can use to explain the issues to judges and juries.
Jo Handelsman, assistant director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, urged participants at an international symposium on forensic science errors in July to eradicate methods such as bite-mark analysis because of the lack of consistency.
Adam Freeman of Westport, Conn., president-elect of the forensic odontology board, said forensic dentists are working with the federal National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop standards and find roles for bite-mark analysis that can withstand scientific scrutiny.
Instead of using tooth impressions to say a bite could be made by just one person, such marks might be used to exclude suspects — if a person were missing teeth, for example, but the victim’s marks showed a full set, Freeman said. And bite marks could be potential sources of DNA evidence from saliva.
“It has some value, but certainly not the value placed on it by some people,” Freeman said. “If a bite mark is the only physical evidence someone had, I’d be very wary.”
Matthew Santoni is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5625 or [email protected].