By Don Penven
Gerard Richardson, 48, is now free on bail after having served nearly 20 years for a murder committed by a different man. Richardson was convicted in 1995 of the murder of 19-year-old Monica Reyes, whose body was found in a ditch in Bernards Township, NJ.
The primary physical evidence included a bite mark on the victim's back that a prosecution expert said was made by Richardson. The prosecution expert testified that Richardson also allegedly had threatened Reyes over $90 she owed him over a drug deal. A recent court-ordered DNA test requested by the Innocence Project revealed that the bite mark contained the DNA of a different man.
Richardson posted $5,000 bond in a Newark courtroom, a day after a judge overturned his conviction. Prosecutors from Somerset Co. offered no opposition to the decision but the charges still stand. The prosecution has not decided if it will request a retrial.
Bite-mark evidence has been criticized by defense attorneys as unreliable and an example of "junk science." A 2013 analysis by The Associated Press found that at least two dozen men charged with or convicted of rape or murder based on bite-mark evidence since 2000 had been exonerated, including some who had spent more than 10 years in prison. Proponents of the method say it's been used to convict violent criminals such as serial killer Ted Bundy.
Attorney Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that has won reversals in numerous cases using DNA testing, said the unreliability of bite-mark comparisons was revealed at Richardson's trial when prosecution and defense experts couldn't agree on whether the bite mark showed the attacker's upper teeth facing up or down on Reyes' back.
Richardson wouldn't have been eligible for parole until May 2025, according to the state Department of Corrections' online database.
Bite mark Analysis… Is it "Junk Science?"
The Associated Press released a story recently that revealed the appalling history behind a branch of forensic dentistry called ‘bite mark analysis.‘ The idea behind the method is that bite marks are like fingerprints and can be traced back to individuals.
“An analyst will study a bite, match it back to a particular set of teeth, and testify that those were the only teeth in the whole wide world that could’ve delivered that particular bite.” –Slate.com
The shocking truth behind this sketchy practice is that more than 24 men have been charged with serious allegations from murder to rape since 2000 based on falsely interpreted human bite marks. Though these men have been released from prison since, many of them were incarcerated for long periods of time — even decades.
As stated in this AP article, “there is no scientific proof that teeth can be matched definitively to a bite into human skin.” In fact, bite mark analysis may also be doomed as a valid form of physical evidence as is the “dermal nitrate” test used to determine if a subject fired a gun. The continuation of the bite mark analysis practice now hinges on the forthcoming ruling of a New York Judge.
Credibility of Bite mark Analysis
The American Dental Association does not recognize the practice of “bite mark analysis” at all. For the FBI, DNA testing is more reliable and carries heavier weight. Supporters of bite mark analysis however argue that child murderers have been convicted using this method, as well as infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. (Yes…child murders have been convicted, but how many of those convictions would stand if DNA evidence is discovered?)
Bite mark analysis became famous with Ted Bundy, who killed dozens of females between 1973 and 1978. Finally Bundy was arrested in Florida. A dentist from Coral Cables took photographs of his upper and lower teeth and gums, noting their uneven pattern. Later on, photographs of Lisa Levy’s corpse (one of Bundy’s last victims) revealed a unique bite mark on her buttock. In conjunction with one eyewitness testimony, the bite mark analysis was used to convict Bundy and sentence him to the electric chair. People across the country were relieved, and we had bite mark analysis to be thankful for.
I think we can all agree on this much: that bite mark analysis has proved unreliable. What needs to be realized is that because a famous case like that of Ted Bundy’s was resolved using this method of forensic dentistry does not mean it should be used in every instance when the innocence or guilt of a person is being determined.
Mike Malone, DDS, www.mikemalonedds.com