Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Within the Walls

A Dentist Appointment

In June 1981, the defense team was made aware of the evidence against their client. Not only were there witnesses who could place Lemuel Smith with the victim at the scene of the murder, but the bite evidence was extremely damaging. Something had to be done to either discredit that testimony or get other experts to challenge the results of the comparison made by the prosecution's side. Kunstler and Mason decided to obtain the services of another forensic odontologist. In early July, the defense asked Dr. Neal Riesner to take a look at the bite evidence.

Dr. Neal Riesner (Author)
Dr. Neal Riesner (Author)

Dr. Neal Riesner, currently the Chief of Forensic Dentistry for Westchester County Medical Examiner's Office, was a consultant for the New York City Medical Examiner's Office at that time and a diplomat in the American Board of Forensic Odontology. "When they asked me to examine the bite marks in both cases," he said in a recent interview, "I knew the results would be critical." On July 2, 1981, the defense supplied Dr. Riesner with a mold of Lemuel Smith's teeth and several photographs, including those from the Marilee Wilson murder. "I took it all home with me that very night," he recalled, "and within a few hours, I came to a conclusion. It was really not too difficult. The bite mark on Donna Payant's body belonged to Lemuel Smith."

Dr. Riesner said he then called the defense team and spoke with C. Vernon Mason. "I told him my findings. But I don't think that's what he wanted to hear," he said. Mason asked Dr. Riesner if it made a difference that Smith had lost a tooth since the Wilson murder. "Not in this case," Dr. Riesner replied. "In this bite mark, the impression is only of the lower set of teeth, which is sometimes the case," he explained recently. "Many bite marks consist of upper and lower, but some do not. It depends on a lot of things, motion of the biter, the victim, movement during the bite and other factors," he said.

"I know that may not have helped the defense, but that was the truth," he said. "It wasn't the result they wanted, but they have to realize that forensics experts are going to give the same opinion no matter who hires them," Dr. Riesner explained. Since the Payant case, he has testified in dozens of criminal cases both for the prosecution and the defense. "Ever since the day I told him it was their client's bite," Dr. Riesner said, "I never heard from Kunstler or Mason again. And they never paid me for my services either."

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