Bite Marks as Evidence to Convict
Whose Bite Mark is it, Anyway?
In 1994, Ricky Amolsch, 38, ended up in jail for ten months over a mistake that a forensic dentist made in a murder case. On August 23rd, in a mobile home park in southern Michigan, Jane Marie Fray, Amolsch's girlfriend, was found dead. She had been stabbed twenty-two times and an electrical cord was wrapped tightly around her neck. The knife used to kill her was left in her mouth. She had also been bitten near her left ear.
Amolsch was arrested, photographed, and fingerprinted. After one night in jail, he was released, although police had taken blood and hair samples, and searched his home and van. Then they got another search warrant for his mouth, and he willingly submitted. The chief forensic odontologist for Wayne and Oakland Counties, Dr. Allan Warnick, took photographs, made molds, and devised charts of his teeth to make a comparison to the bite wound on the victim. It wasn't long before Amolsch was arrested again.
Warnick claimed that Amolsch's teeth and the victim's bite-mark were "highly consistent, " which persuaded the district judge to sign a murder warrant. Despite the fact that bite-mark identification is subject to interpretation and does not have the degree of accuracy that fingerprint analysis or DNA testing enjoy, the preliminary hearing went forth on this evidence alone. Warnick gave compelling testimony that no one else in the metropolitan area would be as good a match to the bite-mark as Amolsch was. The only other testimony was that of an ex-convict, Anthony Walker, who said he had spotted Amolsch's van outside the victim's home that morning and had overheard an argument in her trailer.
Since Amolsch was not eligible for bond, he had to stay in jail until his trial, and during that time, he lost his home, his savings, and his children. Also while there, the man who had testified against him was arrested for robbing and raping a woman in the same mobile home park. Then one of Warnick's other murder cases came under challenge, and that made officials re-examine Amolsch's case. Dr. John Kennedy gave a second opinion that it was the ex-con, Walker, not Amolsch, who had bitten Fray's face. Two other forensic dentists agreed.
Amolsch was then released on bond, and months later the charges were finally dropped. Because of this case and the other one that was challenged, the prosecutor's office in that county no longer recommends warrants strictly for bite-mark identification. The reliability of this method appears to be too questionable. Amolsch has his life back, but he suffers from his ordeal. He now has post traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Warnick admitted that he probably had overstated his findings in the Amolsch case, although he still would not definitively rule the man out. Amolsch feels that this was no simple mistake, but a clear case of fraud that victimized an innocent person. He feels that the dentist should be stripped of his official immunity from being sued and be made to pay in some way for what he did.
A similar case in which a bite-mark plays a pivotal role is that of the West Memphis Three - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin in Jonesboro, Arkansas. They were convicted in 1994 for the murders of three young boys from West Memphis. The victims were found naked and tied ankle to wrist with their shoelaces. One was castrated and stabbed viciously in the groin, and all three were beaten. They were never examined by a board certified medical examiner and never had an autopsy by a forensic pathologist before they were buried. A grassroots support group aimed at freeing the three accused young men has brought attention to the tactics of police coercion used to gain a false confession and to some significant bite-mark evidence that has not had its day in court.
The defense claimed that they did not get funding to have a forensic odontologist examine a human bite mark on the face of one of the victims. They said that the police had knowledge of the bite mark, but it was not brought forward in the trial because it would exonerate the accused. That makes it new evidence. Five years after the fact, an odontologist, a pathologist, and a certified medical examiner looked at the autopsy photos and testified in an appeal that dental impressions obtained by the three defendants indicated that none of the accused had made the mark. However, all three remain behind bars. Judge David Burnett decided that, despite the expert odontology testimony, the bite marks were not actually bite marks. He did not even know what odontology was.
It appears that the methods and significance of forensic odontology need to be described more fully to the court and the general populace, who make up the juries. Careful procedures can be observed that would give this testimony a stronger role in the forensic science community.