NEW YORK – Bite mark evidence that may connect a murder suspect to the victim will be allowed at his trial, a judge decided Thursday, disappointing those who hoped the case would help get the forensic technique banished from the nation's courtrooms.
Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Maxwell Wiley's decision follows lengthy testimony last year that went to the heart of the reliability of bite mark analysis, which involves comparing bite 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 U.S. since 2000, according to a report by The Associated Press in June 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 who were exonerated spent more than a decade in prison, including time on death row.
The AP analysis is the most comprehensive count to date of those exonerated after being convicted or charged based partially or entirely on bite mark evidence.
In allowing bite mark analysis in his courtroom, Wiley declined to spell out his reasoning, saying he preferred to put his thoughts in writing.
But he said that 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 Thursday's hearing 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 that it should no longer be allowed in courtrooms.
Many forensic dentists defend the practice as useful, especially when trying to eliminate suspects, and say 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 wrapped 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 is awaiting trial on a murder charge. His attorneys declined to comment after Thursday's hearing.
Prosecutors wanted the bite mark evidence allowed at his trial to help convince 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 a vice grip and dental models. Her research, which has been published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, has found that human dentition is not unique and cannot be accurately transferred to skin.
Bush acknowledges that a significant limitation of her research includes the fact that she's using dead bodies that have been frozen and thawed and using machinery to create bite marks, a method that is far from re-creating a real-life bite made on a live person during an act of violence.
Bush testified that she did not feel that bite marks should be admissible in courtrooms but that more research in the field is needed.