No one knows just how many inmates are sitting in America’s prisons
due to a conviction based on bite-mark evidence – an outdated technology
that many scientists are now saying is junk science.
One such inmate is S. Chaney, who was serving a life sentence. Just two
weeks ago, he was released from prison after a Dallas County district
judge found that his murder conviction for a double homicide in 1987 was
based on unreliable bite-mark evidence.
Chaney got a second chance after defense attorneys and the Dallas County
Conviction Integrity Unit questioned his case and decided to investigate
the bite-mark evidence that sealed his fate.
Unfortunately, tracking down dozens, if not hundreds of similar cases with
potentially innocent victims will not be an easy task, especially since
there isn’t a central repository of cases where bite-mark evidence
played a key role.
Further, there is no such thing as a database of dentists who’ve
testified about bite-marks, and these cases can date back to the 1950s.
As Chaney embraces his newfound freedom and learns how to use a cellphone
and a computer, attorneys and criminal justice figures across the state
are trying to figure out how to exonerate others like Chaney.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission is the small agency responsible for
overseeing the use of scientific evidence in courtrooms; it’s not
only trying to find similar convictions, it’s working to ensure
that no one else is wrongfully convicted because of a faulty bite-mark
With only four employees and a $500,000 annual budget, it’s nearly
an impossible task without more help.
Lynne Robitaille Garcia, the Forensic Science Commission’s executive
director said that they’re relying on the community’s willingness
to step forward and take a closer look at their work.
Since the 1950s, prosecutors have been using dentists’ expert testimony
about bite-mark evidence left on victims’ bodies and at crime scenes.
In recent years, some of the nation’s leading forensic science bodies
have concluded that no scientific data exists to support the notion that
exact matches can be made with bite-marks.
In Waco, Two Men Exonerated by DNA Evidence
In Waco, two men convicted of
murder in cases that hinged on testimony from the same dentist that worked on
Chaney’s case were exonerated by DNA evidence. After spending a
total of almost 20 years in prison, they were set free.
A third man, D. Spence was executed in 1997. His son wants prosecutors
to re-open the case so his father’s name can be cleared. He says
they took away his father for something he didn’t do.
Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk has made history. She’s
the first prosecutor in the U.S. to agree that an inmate should be released
because of faulty dental testimony.
Meanwhile, other counties have begun reviewing old cases and weighing whether
they should continue using bite-mark evidence in their prosecutions.
The task of identifying potentially innocent prisoners is daunting enough,
and now the commission needs to decide whether bite-mark evidence should
be more limited or if it should be rejected entirely.
Facing criminal charges in Plano, Dallas or Fort Worth?
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