Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bite Marks as Evidence to Convict

Bite Mark Analysis

John Douglas
John Douglas

John Douglas, former FBI agent and one of the founding members of the profiling program at Quantico, has had some experience with bite-mark evidence. Among his books are Mindhunter, Journey into Darkness, and The Anatomy of Motive.

In one of his cases, the 1979 murder of Francine Elveson, he had to examine bite-mark evidence as part of the process of developing a profile. Elveson lived in the Bronx and was a 26-year-old teacher of handicapped children. Found on the roof of her apartment building, she had been severely beaten and posed in a spread-eagled position. Her entire face had been fractured, and she was tied around the wrists and ankles with her belt and stockings. Her nipples had been cut off and there were bite-mark bruises on the inside of her thighs and around her knees. Lacerations from a penknife pierced her body and an umbrella had been forced into her vagina. She had also been strangled, which had caused her death. Words had been written on her skin in pen by the killer as a challenge to police to try to catch him. He had also defecated next to the body and covered it with her clothing. Aside from a single Negroid hair found on the body, there was no other obvious evidence.

The police began to look for a black male, but their search turned up nothing. They asked for dental impressions from many people in the area, which also yielded no further leads. Then they turned for help to the FBI.

From what he could tell about this kind of attack, John Douglas offered the profile of a disheveled, unemployed white male, between the ages of 25-35, who lived nearby. It was an aggressive crime of opportunity that indicated a background of mental illness. The type of aggression (biting, physical blows) indicated a sophisticated fantasy life that took years to develop. The frenzy of bite marks pointed toward a disorganized killer.

This surprising profile led to a new round of questioning, from which emerged the first real suspect: Carmine Calabro. His father lived in the apartment building. Carmine had a history of mental instability; he was 32, white, and unemployed.

When Calabro was asked for a dental impression, he gave it willingly, and three experts—Dr. Lowell Levine, Dr. Richard Souviron, and Dr. Dr. Homer Campbell—matched them to the bite-mark bruises on the victim. Calabro was arrested and this bite-mark testimony became key evidence in a trial that ended up in a murder conviction and life sentence. (Calabro had his teeth removed during the appeals process to avoid any further impressions being made.)

"The damage done by biting," Douglas said, "is often missed by medical examiners. To them it looks like bruising and they don't really take a closer look at it. The more experienced pathologists or forensic odontologists tend to spot it and get some photographic enhancement. Biting is often part of a violent sexual assault, whether it's rape or murder. It gets back to the issue of control and dominance. I've interviewed a few offenders about this, but you don't expect them to tell you things like, 'It was the ultimate control.' You have to interpret it from what they say. It's about anger, aggression, and power. To them, it's total domination. They're consuming that person in every possible way. Their teeth are tools. They're destroying with every weapon they've got."

Another profile expert, Grover M. Godwin, did an extensive study of serial killers, some of whom bite their victims. He defines this type of killer as "object-affective." In other words, they fail to see their victims as human and treat them instead as objects. They spend time with the victims and kill them slowly, sadistically. The body has a symbolic significance for them and they want to degrade it. Such killers consumed extensive amounts of pornography and generally engaged in fetish behaviors. They have an advanced fantasy life in which the victim plays a symbolic role.

Douglas thinks that it does not really matter whether a bite mark is on the face, stomach, breast, or buttocks: It all amounts to the same thing. "I did a case in Wood River, Illinois, where the bite was on the neck. Bundy bit the breast and buttock. Francine Elveson was on the thigh. This isn't about cannibalism, which takes it much further. It's about bringing the victim completely under their power."

The case in Wood River, Illinois, surprised everyone involved when they had to seek evidence four years after the fact. In January of 1978, Karla Brown was found murdered by her fiancé in the basement of the home into which they were moving. "She was there with her head stuck in a barrel of water," Douglas recalled. "She was strangled, beaten about the head, and stabbed, and there was blood on the doorknob. It seemed like a neighborhood type of crime by someone who was watching her and aware that she was alone. He didn't even wash his hands off, which indicated he didn't have far to go. The guy was interviewed and he cooperated. He even injected himself into the investigation. Anyway, there was bruising around the neck that I noticed and the medical examiner noticed, but he didn't really do anything about it. So years later, they exhumed her and had a photographic enhancement done. Dr. Lowell Levine, the head of the New York State Crime Lab, testified that the impression matched the suspect and he was convicted."

In fact, what had happened was some incredible police work done by Don Weber, who refused to give up on the case, even when the trail was growing cold. Two years went by before he met Dr. Homer Campbell, an expert on the computer enhancement of photographs. Campbell took a look at the autopsy photos and pointed out the fact that some of the bruises on the victim were bite marks. This stunned Weber, who had known nothing of such evidence. Campbell said that they were good enough impressions to be able to match to a suspect. It turned out, however, that the photos weren't clear enough, so Dr. Levine suggested they exhume the body and get another look.

Four years after the murder, the body of Karla Brown was exhumed. "Even after all that time," Douglas said, "the skin was still intact and we were able to get a bite-mark impression off the victim's neck."

It came out that shortly after the murder a man named John Prante had been talking about the fact that Karla had been bitten on the shoulder. Even the police had not known this, so he quickly came under suspicion. He was forced by a warrant to give a dental impression. His impression was submitted with that of two others, along with the new set of photos of the bite mark, to Dr. Levine. Prante's teeth matched perfectly and he was arrested and convicted.

As exciting as this was to the forensic science community, there have been cases of false conviction that prove the subjective nature of bite-mark analysis, and there have also been cases where bite-mark evidence that could exonerate someone has been ignored. Not all bite-mark cases that get to court receive justice.