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When it comes to identifying human remains — whether they’re three or three thousand years old — forensic dentistry, also known as forensic odontology, is one of the most popular and most reliable methods of identification. By analyzing dental remains, special forensic dentists can identify how old an individual was when they died, what they ate, and who they were. Dental records can be matched with found remains to determine the individual’s identity, even if nothing more is present than dental fillings. There is some controversy regarding bite mark analysis and its admissibility in court, but forensic dentistry remains a valuable resource for solving crime.
Forensic dentistry first appeared in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials, when the accused witches presented bite marks on their arms as evidence against Reverend George Burroughs. In 1954, bite marks on a piece of cheese were used to tie the suspect to the scene of a burglary, and subsequently opened the door for bite marks discovered on objects to be used as evidence within the judicial system. Forensic dentistry can be used to tie a suspect to a crime scene, but it can also be used to estimate the age and intent of the biter in suspected cases of domestic abuse. Teeth and their subsequent bite marks have different characteristics depending on the age and lifestyle of the biter.
Teeth grow about four micrometers each day, so by analyzing the size of the teeth, a forensic dentist can get a good idea of the general age of the individual in question. Teeth will also wear differently depending on the individual’s lifestyle. Training to become a forensic dentist is a relatively lengthy process. In addition to holding a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) degree, applicants must also undertake special forensic training from an organization like the American Society of Forensic Odontology. Once certified, the new forensic dentist will play a critical role in the criminal justice system.
An Inconvenient Tooth: Forensic Odontology and Bitemarks in Skin
Forensic dentistry can be used to identify bodies, even bodies that have been lost or missing for many years. When it comes to identifying bite marks on victims, however, forensic dentistry still has some work to do. This report discusses current issues with bite mark analysis and its questionable admissibility in a courtroom.
Filling Fragments Can Identify Human Remains
If a body has been subjected to a fire or explosion, there may not be enough teeth or DNA to make an identification. Luckily, forensic dentistry doesn’t end at the tooth. By analyzing filling fragments, the victim can still be identified, and this news article discusses exactly how forensic dentists go about the process.
Forensic Dentistry: Dental Indicators for Identification
Forensic dentistry can be used to determine the age, sex, race, and even social status of a deceased individual. Discover how your teeth can tell stories in this paper from Louisiana State University.
Cases Where DNA Revealed that Bite Mark Analysis Led to Wrongful Convictions
Unfortunately, bite mark analysis is not always a reliable method of proving guilt. The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to the exoneration of wrongfully imprisoned individuals, has an article discussing cases in which bite mark analysis can be misleading to investigators.
Bite Mark Evidence Not Always Accurate
Bite mark evidence was key in the conviction of serial rapist and murderer Ted Bundy. Ted Bundy’s unusually-shaped teeth made the connection readily apparent, but without DNA testing, individuals with similarly-shaped teeth, like brothers, may be mistaken for one another.
Revenge in the Salem Witchcraft Hysteria: The Putnam Family and George Burroughs
Forensic dentistry in its infancy was little more than presenting bite marks at a trial. For a look at the first case involving forensic dentistry, this online article details the progression and outcome of the trial of Reverend George Burroughs.
Bite Marks as Physical Evidence: An Overview
For a comprehensive overview of bite mark evidence and its progression through time, look no further than this article from Open Access Scientific Reports. In it, the history of bite mark analysis, the psychology behind criminal bite marks, and bite mark examples are discussed and presented.
Forensic odontology can be a hard subject to understand, but you don’t need years of training to have a good grasp on the subject. This article from the International Association for Identification provides a thorough yet concise overview of the field of forensic odontology.
Forensic Odontology: Disaster Victim ID, Facial Reconstruction (PDF)
Forensic dentistry isn’t only used at crime scenes. Teeth can be crucial to the identification of disaster victims or the reconstruction of ancient fossils. Learn more in this report from The Hong Kong Medical Diary.
Use of DNA Technology in Forensic Dentistry
When combined with DNA technology, forensic dentistry takes on an enhanced role in the judicial system. The Journal of Applied Oral Science has an excellent article detailing how the two disciplines work together.
Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Dentistry
If you’re unsure of the difference between forensic anthropology and forensic dentistry, then be sure to check out this article. The National Institute of Justice has a quick, concise summary of the two professions and how they differ.
Skeletal Remains Identification by Facial Reconstruction
Teeth can tell an investigator a lot about the individual, including what race they were and what lifestyle they enjoyed. When coupled with facial reconstruction, teeth become a useful way to give the dead a recognizable face.
Bite Mark Evidence and Miscarriages of Justice (PDF)
The trouble with bite mark evidence is that it evolved before DNA testing. Now that medical technology has caught up, bite mark evidence needs to be examined in terms of accuracy and relevance for modern court cases.
Forensic Odontology: The Roles and Responsibilities of the Dentist (PDF)
Have you ever wondered exactly what a forensic dentist does? This paper from the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association provides an inside look at the work of a forensic dentist.
A Look at Forensic Dentistry: The Role of Teeth
There are several ways to make identifications within the field of forensic dentistry. The British Dental Journal has an article that describes and provides examples of each method.
Biting Controversy: Forensic Dentistry Battles to Prove it’s Not ‘Junk Science’
In 1995, a forensic dentist identified Gerard Richardson as a killer based on a bite mark discovered on the victim. In 2013, DNA testing revealed that Richardson’s DNA was not present on the victim. This article discusses the issues with bite mark evidence and whether or not the practice is still a viable form of forensic science.
When Disaster Strikes: Forensic Dentistry and Disaster Victim Identification
When a plane crashed in Nova Scotia in 1998, only one of the 229 passengers was able to be identified visually. The rest were finally named through the diligent work of forensic dentists and researchers.
Lip Prints: An Overview in Forensic Dentistry
Where there are teeth, there are lips, and a lip print can be just as informative as a fingerprint. This article from The Journal of Advanced Dental Research provides a glimpse into a little-discussed science.
Forensic Dentistry: Drawing Deductions from the Dead
From analysis to identification, there are many steps that must take place to analyze a bite mark. Read about cases in which forensic dentistry was used and the methodology behind forensic dentistry.
Forensic Odontology: A Five-Minute Introduction
If reading over scientific jargon sounds confusing, then this may be a better introduction to the world of forensic odontology. This video, created and provided by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, takes the viewer on a short tour of the world of forensic dentistry.
DNA Profiling in Forensic Dentistry (PDF)
For an in-depth look at the role teeth play in DNA analysis, search no further than this article. It discusses a variety of different DNA markers and typing methods used in forensic dentistry.
A Brief History of Forensic Odontology in Australia (PDF)
Forensic odontology first appeared in Australia in the 1920s and 30s. Since then, it has become a valuable way of identifying victims in accidents and homicides, and is regularly used by investigators.
Interview with Forensic Dentistry Specialist David K. Wittaker
What better way to learn about forensic dentistry than from a real-life forensic dentist? This interview discusses some insider observations about the field of forensic dentistry and the science behind it.
Forensic Odontology: Role, History, and Methods
If you’re looking for a crash course on forensic dentistry, look no further. This four-page handout includes everything you need to know about the topic, including the role forensic dentistry plays in the legal system and various types of dental identifications.
The Time Paul Revere Worked as a Dentist
Paul Revere was actually one of the first people to use forensic dentistry as a way to identify the dead. You can read his story here, in an article provided by Mental Floss.
Bites Derided as Unreliable in Court
Since 2000, 24 individuals convicted with bite mark evidence have been exonerated. This article discusses the issues of analyst bias and the steps the judicial system is taking to ensure that no further wrongful convictions occur.
Forensic Dentistry and Microbial Analysis of Bite Marks (PDF)
Bacteria, hidden away in the recesses of teeth, can help link a bite to the teeth that caused it. Read more about the microbial side of forensic dentistry in this magazine article.
Odontology: Bite Marks as Evidence in Criminal Trials (PDF)
Bite marks are a controversial issue in courts. In addition to being susceptible to analyst bias, the offender’s teeth can easily be altered by filing or tooth extraction. This article examines the pros and cons of bite marks used as evidence in courts, and offers a quick look at the world of odontology in general.
All You Ever Wanted to Know About Forensic Science (PDF)
Forensic odontology is only one of many fields that work together to solve a case. The British Columbia Institute of Technology has a guide that answers the most common questions about forensic science, including those about odontology.
2 Men Freed in Child Death Bite-Mark Cases
Two innocent men spend ten years behind bars, convicted by the testimony of a forensic dentist whose bias led him to read the evidence incorrectly. This modern example of bite mark misinterpretation demonstrates the urgent need for a reevaluation of the usefulness of bite mark evidence in court.
Case Study: Joseph Warren and Paul Revere
Joseph Warren was the first U.S. military member to be identified by dental remains. His story has been preserved by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, along with dental tools rumored to have been in Paul Revere’s possession.
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