Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bite Marks as Evidence to Convict

The Most Famous Bite

On January 15, 1978, Lisa Levy and Martha Bowman went to bed in the same room in the Chi Omega sorority house at Tallahassee's Florida State University. No one could have guessed that this was to be their last night alive. In the dark, a man wearing a blue knit cap crept in and struck them with a wooden club until they were dead. Then he fled into the night.

A witness, Nita Neary, saw the man in the house running with a cloth-covered log, so she called the police and they came to investigate. Never had they seen such a brutal attack, and little did they know that these girls were the latest victims of serial killer Ted Bundy, who had left a wake of uncounted female corpses from Washington State to Florida. Generally he went after one at a time, but for some reason he had gone on a rampage that night.

Lisa Levy was raped, strangled, and beaten on the head. Margaret Bowman was strangled with a pair of pantyhose and severely beaten on the head. Neither had struggled. Two other girls in the house had been attacked and less than an hour and a half later, the man assaulted a fifth victim, who survived. Just a few weeks after that, he abducted, raped, and killed a 12-year-old girl.

No fingerprints were found at the crime scene, which meant that the room had been wiped clean. While that kind of precaution was consistent with Bundy's personality, it was not hard evidence for a conviction. The attacker had taken his weapon with him so that item of evidence was also missing from the crime scene collection. They had a blood type, a few print smudges, and sperm samples, but all proved inconclusive. Yet there was a piece of evidence that was to become a centerpiece during the trial: an odd bite mark on the left buttock of Lisa Levy. She had also been bitten on the breast, but this mark on her buttock was a much better impression. One officer laid a yellow ruler against the abrasion and then stepped back for the photographers. His presence of mind might have made all the difference between conviction and acquittal of the most notorious killer in America to date, because the tissue specimens were lost by the time of the trial.

Ted Bundy in court
Ted Bundy in court

While Bundy's own revelations were never altogether credible, it appeared that his adult crime spree had begun in 1973 or 1974, when he killed more than two dozen girls. The first apparent victim might have been Kathy Devine, 15, who was running away from home. Then there was Linda Ann Healy, who turned up missing in January, 1974. Blood drenched her mattress and there was a bloodstained nightgown close to the bed, but no body. Dozens of apparent abduction-murders followed throughout the Pacific Northwest and a suspect emerged who called himself "Ted" and who appeared to lure girls into his car by wearing a cast and claiming he needed some help.

Some girls vanished altogether, while others were found dumped in remote places, such as densely wooded hillsides. Similar deaths in Utah and Colorado alerted law enforcement to the possibility of a transient killer who might be very difficult to catch. Nevertheless, they did catch him, and with the help of a near-victim who managed to get away, they convicted him and sentenced him to a prison term. However, Bundy slipped through a window and got away. Recaptured eight days later, he managed once again to escape, and this time he left the Western states and went to Florida.

In Pensacola after the sorority murders, Bundy was arrested in a stolen vehicle and brought into the police station. He gave a false name, but eventually he told them who he was. The investigators requested that he provide a dental impression that they could use to compare to the suspicious bite mark, but Bundy refused. They got a search warrant that authorized them to get the impression in any way they could, and made a surprise trip to prevent Bundy from grinding his teeth down in an effort to disguise his bite. Dr. Richard Souviron, a dentist from Coral Gables, took photographs of Bundy's front upper and lower teeth and gums. He noted the uneven pattern, which would make a match easier to make.

Bundy acted as his own attorney for most of his trial—the first of three in Florida—until Dr. Souviron took the stand. Then Bundy sent in a lawyer who was there to assist him. This same lawyer had already requested that the bite-mark evidence be thrown out because there had been no grounds for the warrant. The judge had ruled it admissible.

Bundy's teeth and bite marks on Lisa Levy (trial evidence)
Bundy's teeth and bite marks on Lisa Levy
(trial evidence)

The tissue from Lisa Levy's buttock had been destroyed in all the analyses, but the photograph with the ruler still remained. Souviron described the bite mark on Lisa Levy as the jury examined the photographs. He pointed out how unique the indentation mark was and showed how it matched the dental impressions of Bundy's teeth. He showed them the structure of alignment, the chips, the size of the teeth, and the sharpness factors of the bicuspids, lateral, and incisor teeth. Then he put up on a board an enlarged photo of the bite-mark and laid over it a transparent sheet with an enlarged picture of Bundy's teeth. There appeared to be no doubt that Bundy had left his mark on this victim.

Souviron went on to explain that there was a double bite involved: The attacker had bit once, then turned sideways and bit again. The top teeth remained in the same position, but the lower teeth left two rings. That gave Souviron twice as much to work with to prove his case. When questioned by the defense about the subjective nature of odontology interpretation, Souviron explained that he had done several experiments with model teeth to be assured of the standardization of his analysis. The attorney pointed out that the ruler in the photo had been lost, but Souviron countered with the obvious fact that it once had existed because it was in the photo.

Then the state called Dr. Lowell Levine, the chief consultant in forensic dentistry to New York City's Medical Examiner. He testified that the victim had to be lying passive for the marks to be left as they were, and also pointed out that odontology had a longer legal history than most people realized. He was an impressive witness.

Along with the eyewitness testimony of Nita Neary, this evidence was the best the prosecutor had. It was good enough. Bundy was found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. This was the first case in Florida's legal history that relied on bite-mark testimony, and the first time that a physical piece of evidence actually linked Bundy with one of his crimes.

However, bite-mark testimony is more complicated than many people realize.

 

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