“I think we can safely say that bite mark evidence is just junk,” says Michael Semanchik of the California Innocence Project. He speaks with some authority, as he has worked for many years on the exoneration of Bill Richards, who was falsely convicted of his wife’s 1993 murder.
Richards’ story began when he came home from work one night to find his half-naked wife dead on the ground outside their home in California. According to The Outline, it took three 911 calls to get police to come investigate and, even then, it wasn’t until almost three hours later that homicide detectives showed up.
Worse, Pamela Richards’ body was left outside all night in the August heat, exposed to the elements and wildlife. Her body didn’t get processed until dawn.
The police have since admitted that they assumed Bill Richards was guilty before they even got to the scene. Now there is DNA evidence that was missed during the investigation, and that DNA points to a different suspect. Richards even had an alibi, but that didn’t matter in the face of the forensic bite mark evidence.
And bite mark evidence is junk science. But the California courts didn’t know that at the time, and the forensic odontologist who testified said that a bite on Pamela’s body was almost certainly a match to Bill’s “highly unique lower dentition.” The witness then made a statement that he later recanted. He said that Bill’s bite pattern was so unique that it only occurred in one to two percent of the population.
In reality, the bite mark probably came from a dog or a coyote. Bill Richards was exonerated in 2016.
We know that bite mark evidence is bogus because, among other things, flesh is more malleable than many expect, people bruise differently even when exposed to the same bites, and bruises continue to change color and shape even after death. Moreover, Semanchik explains that most bite-mark experts are only ever given photos of the body to examine.
What can we do to prevent bogus forensic science from being used to put more innocent people behind bars?
In January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would make $145 million in grants to local jurisdictions to improve forensic analysis. The money will fund the research and development of “more accurate, reliable, and cost-effective and rapid methods of analyzing physical evidence.”
How much could that change things in the world of forensic science? It may be just a drop in the bucket of what is needed. In the meantime, innocent people are suffering in prison due to false forensic analyses.