While the experts continue to fight it out over what scientific basis there is for bitemarks and how far the evidence can be relied upon this piece from the New York Times reminds us that there are people at the end of these arguments.
Its difficult to think of something worse than being wrongfully convicted, but the damaged lives of those at the wrong end of forensic mistakes are often forgotten.
People like Kennedy Brewer and Steven Chaney have spent decades in the US prison system, each day knowing that they were innocent. I guess we always think that the justice system will protect us and ensure that the correct result is reached – but these two men, and countless others, are examples of why this simply isn’t the case.
There is a need for forensic dentists to put their conflict of interests to one side and remember why they entered both the profession of dentistry and the forensic field. Surely to help people and serve justice?
While it has been argued recently that BM evidence can help prove innocence (and that is true) it is more frequently used to promote a prosecution and we may simply have to accept that the science behind the comparative process does not let us adhere to the first principle of professional dentistry – first do no harm.
While it may be painful to loose those cases where we feel BM can help – the overwhelming risk of another Brewer or Chaney is simply to great. The use of BM in civil and family matters may be justified – while we shouldn’t forget the importance of the decisions made in such Courts, the burden of proof is much more consistent with the level of evidence that surrounds BM comparisons.
While the NAS reported in 2009 that the science was insufficient, this position has not changed – indeed those research articles published since the NAS report have tended to further question the biological plausibility of what is being done.