Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Within the Walls

Taking a Bite Out of Crime

Forensic odontology is dentistry applied to criminal investigations. Activities in this field may include identification of a corpse or bite mark comparisons between two or more samples. A forensic odontologist is a dentist who is able to make an expert judgment on such evidence. In many cases, those judgments can determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant. One of the most famous bite mark cases on record occurred in Florida during the 1970s.

Bite mark comparison from Ted Bundy trial
Bite mark comparison from Ted Bundy trial

Serial killer Ted Bundy murdered several college students on the campus of Florida State University in Tallahassee. In addition to being a brutal, sadistic killer, Bundy was a "biter." He enjoyed biting his victims both during and after his sexual assaults. One of his victims, Lisa Levy, 20, suffered bite marks on her body, which were of high qualitative value. These wounds were compared to an impression of Bundy's teeth and were shown to be a perfect match. Bundy was found guilty and later executed for his crimes.

Of course, bite marks can be pivotal in criminal investigations. The importance of their application usually depends on the quality of the impressions. Generally, the more pronounced the bite mark, the more likely a comparison will be successful. Bite mark comparisons are not, despite television portrayals to the contrary, irrefutable. At times, they can be subjective to individual interpretation due to several factors. Human skin is not the perfect medium for a bite mark impression. It differs from one individual to the next and stretches in unpredictable ways. The red bruising that lies under the skin (subcutaneous) and, often present in human bite marks, is frequently misinterpreted as part of the bite mark impression.    The position of the biter and the victim, the duration of the bite and even the manner in which the evidence is photographed, can make a difference in the analysis. It takes a trained, experienced eye to understand these variables.

One of the forensic odontologists called in by Dr. Michael Baden was none other than Dr. Lowell Levine, the same man who performed the analysis of the bite mark evidence in the Marilee Wilson case in 1977. As soon as Dr. Levine examined the injuries to Donna Payant's chest, he noticed the similarities between the two murder victims. He reported his findings to Captain DeFrancesco of the New York State Police. The bite marks on the body of Donna Payant matched the bite marks on the body of Marilee Wilson. There could be only one inescapable conclusion. Lemuel Smith had killed both women.

Comparison of Smith's teeth, '77 to '81
Comparison of Smith's teeth, '77 to '81 (Dr. Neal Riesner)

The stunning results of Dr. Levine's comparison were powerful evidence against Smith. For prosecutors, it was the final link in the puzzle of Donna Payant's death. On June 1, 1981, Smith was formally arrested and charged with her murder. Because he was already under a life sentence, New York State law dictated that if he were found guilty of murder, Smith would face a mandatory death penalty.

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