Yesterday we reported the case of Steven Chaney who was convicted largely on the basis of a bitemark – and one that was linked to a spurious statistical claim that 1 to a million chance of it being caused by someone else.
Late yesterday afternoon the case went before the Dallas Court where the judge freed him after he had spent more than a quarter of a century behind bars. Hales (one of the two forensic dentists who testified for the prosecution) did the decent thing – he said that his evidence was wrong, not only under the current standards, but also those of the time.
That this has happened in Texas will be worrying for the ABFO who find themselves arguing to keep bitemarks in Court as their science is assessed by the Forensic Science Commission. Chris Fabricant of the NY Innocence Project stated:
When the Texas Forensic Science Commission reviews the validity and reliability of bite mark evidence … you’re going to find a lot more Steven Mark Chaneys
Of course in order to find these – the forensic dentists will need to come forward and identify cases – and the commission has stated that this should be done within a context not of blame, but of seeking the truth. It may be difficult to identify these cases – not least as it is typically only appeals that get published with any level of detail.
Of course cases such as this don’t fundamentally undermine bitemark analysis – many will argue that the fault lies in the analyst rather than the evidence per se – however, while a few years ago it was easy to look at experts such as West and state this was true there is now mounting evidence that many, many experts have got it wrong.
Chaney’s release needs to be approved by the Appeals Court, but, given the prosecutors comment that Chaney was denied his constitutional right to a free trial (and that she would undertake to assess “actual innocence”) this seems to be assured.
Chaney can now claim membership of the Bitemark Exoneree Club – over 24 people whose convictions have been overturned as a result of faulty, and at times fraudulent, bitemark evidence. A dubious honour.
2015 and 2016 will pivitol times for bitemarks – no one knows quite where the science will end up.