Forensic bitemark identification: weak foundations, exaggerated claims

Michael J. Saks, Sandy L Zabell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Several forensic sciences, especially of the pattern-matching kind, are increasingly seen to lack the scientific foundation needed to justify continuing admission as trial evidence. Indeed, several have been abolished in the recent past. A likely next candidate for elimination is bitemark identification. A number of DNA exonerations have occurred in recent years for individuals convicted based on erroneous bitemark identifications. Intense scientific and legal scrutiny has resulted. An important National Academies review found little scientific support for the field. The Texas Forensic Science Commission recently recommended a moratorium on the admission of bitemark expert testimony. The California Supreme Court has a case before it that could start a national dismantling of forensic odontology. This article describes the (legal) basis for the rise of bitemark identification and the (scientific) basis for its impending fall. The article explains the general logic of forensic identification, the claims of bitemark identification, and reviews relevant empirical research on bitemark identification—highlighting both the lack of research and the lack of support provided by what research does exist. The rise and possible fall of bitemark identification evidence has broader implications—highlighting the weak scientific culture of forensic science and the law's difficulty in evaluating and responding to unreliable and unscientific evidence.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)538-575
Number of pages38
JournalJournal of Law and the Biosciences
Volume3
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - 2016

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