Court Strips Immunity From Bite Mark Experts Who Put Wrong Man In Jail For 23 Years

from the junk-scientists-junked dept

We’ve discussed the junk science masquerading as forensic science in criminal cases. Coming in slightly ahead of chatting with psychics is “bite mark analysis.” According to these so-called experts, each bite mark is just as unique as a fingerprint. But if so, why have so many cases been overturned when actual science — usually DNA evidence — is examined? Bite mark analysts have no answers. Fortunately, there’s been less and less reliance on this highly-questionable evidence over the years.

But bite mark analysis was in vogue long enough to do serious damage to people’s lives. The 7th Circuit Appeals Court has just decided a wrongly imprisoned man can continue with his civil rights lawsuit against the two forensic odontologists who allegedly conspired to fabricate their expert opinions. Here’s how the plaintiff spent most of the last quarter-decade, from the opening of the court’s decision [PDF]:

Robert Stinson spent twenty?three years in jail for a murder he did not commit. No eyewitness testimony or fingerprints connected him to the murder. Two dentists testified as experts that Stinson’s dentition matched the teeth marks on the victim’s body, and a jury found Stinson guilty.

The court chronicles the long path law enforcement — aided by two dentists — took to Stinson in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The opinion, somewhat unfortunately, doesn’t question the use of bite mark analysis as evidence. Instead, it focuses on the fabrication and other missteps/misconduct allegedly perpetrated by the analysts as they assisted law enforcement and prosecutors in building the murder case.

Dr. Lowell Johnson was the first dentist to be brought in. Examining photos of bite marks on the victim’s body, Johnson informed officers the suspect would have a missing or broken lateral incisor — a tooth one over from the upper front teeth. When Stinson was interviewed by officers at his home, they noticed he had a missing right front tooth, which is not the same tooth as indicated by their bite mark expert. Nevertheless, they persisted.

After they finished their interviews, the two detectives met at the front of the house, and Jackelen told Gauger, “We have him.” The detectives then went back to speak with Stinson and intentionally said something to make Stinson laugh so that his teeth would be visible. When Gauger saw that Stinson had a missing upper front tooth, he thought, according to his later memoir, The Memo Book, published long after Stinson’s conviction, “There it was. The broken front tooth and the twisted tooth just like on the diagram and pictures.” (At his deposition in this case, however, Gauger said that the missing tooth was on the upper right side and to the right of the front tooth.)


On November 15, 1984, Gauger and Jackelen met with Johnson. The November 15 police report states that Johnson said the offender would have a missing or broken right central incisor (i.e., the upper right front tooth). That is the same tooth that the detectives had observed that Stinson was missing when they questioned him.

Then came more “expert” work from law enforcement’s expert:

The next day, the detectives interviewed and photographed two other men with at least one missing or broken tooth. Johnson ruled them out as suspects in Cychosz’s murder based only on looking at the photographs. Stinson’s odontological expert in the current case, Dr. Michael Bowers, states there was no scientific basis for Johnson to exclude these two men by just looking at photographs.

Despite Stinson missing the wrong tooth, the dentist and law enforcement continued to build a case against him. Dr. Johnson had another sketch of the bite marks drawn up — again with the missing lateral incisor. Then this drawing simply vanished. Dr. Johnson referred to it in court during a pre-trial hearing, while remarking Stinson’s teeth (with the missing incisor, rather than lateral incisor) matched up with the imprints and missing sketch — a statement that followed Johnson’s 20-second “examination” of Stinson’s teeth.

A cast of Stinson’s teeth was ordered by the court. Johnson examined the cast and claimed it was a match — again, despite the wrong tooth being missing. Law enforcement officers used this assertion to push for a search warrant but the DA pushed back, saying there still wasn’t enough probable cause despite the declared “match.”

So, Dr. Johnson brought in a friend of his — Dr. Raymond Rawson — to act as a second bite mark expert. Rawson reviewed the bite mark evidence in a Las Vegas hotel room and unsurprisingly sided with his longtime friend and colleague. Dr. Rawson did not personally examine Stinson’s mouth at any time. Johnson prepared an “expert report” on these findings and submitted it to the court with Rawson’s approval.

The trial began, with the state offering nothing but two dentists and some highly-questionable bite mark examinations as evidence.

The prosecution did not offer any evidence of motive, nor did it produce any eyewitness testimony that connected Stinson to Cychosz’s murder. Some testimony suggested that Stinson had given conflicting versions of his whereabouts on the night of Cychosz’s death. Stinson’s counsel moved to exclude any forensic odontology evidence from trial, but that request was denied. Johnson testified at trial that the bite marks on Cychosz must have been made by teeth identical in relevant characteristics to those that Johnson examined on Stinson. Rawson testified that Johnson performed “a very good work?up” and that he agreed with Johnson’s conclusion to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that Stinson caused the bite marks on Cychosz’s body.

Stinson got locked up for the next 23 years and Dr. Johnson went on to use this case to further his career as a forensic expert, despite the ringing up a person with the wrong missing tooth on murder charges. Twenty-three years later, experts not named Rawson or Johnson examined the so-called evidence.

[A] panel of four forensic odontologists reanalyzed the bite mark evidence and concluded that Stinson could not have made the bite marks found on Cychosz. DNA testing of blood found on Cychosz’s clothing also excluded Stinson. Stinson’s conviction was vacated on January 30, 2009, and he was released from prison. The State of Wisconsin dismissed all charges against him that July. In April 2010, the Wisconsin State Crime DNA Database matched the DNA profile of the blood found on Cychosz’s clothing with that of a convicted felon, Moses Price. Price later pled guilty to Cychosz’s murder.

Another expert had more to say about the state’s supposed experts:

Stinson’s expert in this case, Dr. Bowers, reviewed the bite mark evidence and concluded that the bite marks found on Cychosz excluded Stinson. Consistent with the panel, Bowers concluded that Johnson’s and Rawson’s explanations of why a bite mark appeared on Cychosz’s body where Stinson has a missing tooth has “no empirical or scientific basis and does not account for the absence of any marks by the adjacent, fully developed teeth.” Bowers believed that the methods Johnson and Rawson used “were flawed and did not comport with the accepted standards of practice in the field of forensic odontology at the time.” Bowers concluded that “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty as a forensic odontologist … Johnson and Rawson knowingly manipulated the bite mark evidence and Stinson’s dentition to appear to ‘match’ when there was in fact no correlation between Stinson’s teeth and the bite marks inflicted on Cychosz’s body.”

At this point, the Appeals Court can’t rule on the issue of qualified immunity for the law enforcement officers involved in this case, but it can take away the absolute immunity asked for by the state’s dental experts. As the court notes, the allegations all concern pre-trial evidence preparation. Statements made in court usually confer absolute immunity, but nothing like that shields state experts from actions taken prior to the case going to court. As the court here sees it, Stinson has alleged more than enough to continue with his lawsuit. It quotes the lower court’s decision summary of the actions taken by the two dentists, which raises serious questions about the fabrication of evidence.

The evidence in the record about Johnson’s shift regarding which tooth was missing after the detectives thought they had their man, the lack of a sketch at the John Doe hearing, Johnson’s call to Rawson, Rawson’s extremely brief initial review of the physical evidence in Las Vegas, and the existence of gross errors in Johnson’s and Rawson’s review of the physical evidence (which another expert says could not be honestly made) provides enough to allow Stinson to get Johnson, Rawson, and Gauger before the jury for evaluation.

These two dentists will now have to face the court and defend themselves against charges they fabricated evidence and conspired (along with officers) to withhold exculpatory evidence from the defendant. There’s a lot at stake here with 23 years of prison time involved. This doesn’t make Stinson whole again, but it at least gives him a shot at receiving something in exchange for the two dozen years the government took away from him.

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Comments on “Court Strips Immunity From Bite Mark Experts Who Put Wrong Man In Jail For 23 Years”

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Anonymous Coward says:

If I were them I would have killed myself

If I found out that I had helped convict someone wrongfully and they had lost decades of their life to my incompetence, I would never stand trial since I would send them every penny I could and then kill myself to try to make the world a better place. This man should sue them for every potential penny they could ever earn and he is still not going to be whole for the life that he can never go back and live.

David says:

Re: If I were them I would have killed myself

You are assuming that it was incompetence. It would appear like contradicting evidence was quietly put away.

And then we are talking about decades of the life of a young black man who could not even afford getting his teeth in good order, versus a court expertise career of dentists.

Giving the guy a 5% cut would seem like more he could have expected to make off his life anyway.

And that’s likely what this case is going to end up with, if at all. He can be glad to be living in Wisconsin. In the South, he’d have been executed long ago by the dawn’s early light.

Go ahead, tell me I’m wrong. You know I damn well should be.

Anonymous Coward says:

“A cast of Stinson’s teeth was ordered by the court. Johnson examined the cast and claimed it was a match — again, despite the wrong tooth being missing. Law enforcement officers used this assertion to push for a search warrant but the DA pushed back, saying there still wasn’t enough probable cause despite the declared “match.””

Wow, can I go back to living on that planet please?

Chuck says:

Shoe Prints and DNA

Bite Marks are exactly like Shoe Prints from an evidentiary perspective. If you’re wearing some strange offbrand that only one-in-30,000 people own, it has little value, but still, some. If you’re wearing a Nike, it’s totally worthless. The same goes for teeth. If you’ve got some extra-rare mouth deformity, maybe it has some value, but otherwise, nada.

In both cases, it’s important to remember that ALL of this evidence – these, fingerprints, and even DNA – do NOT prove that someone committed a crime. These forensic tools only prove that certain people DIDN’T commit the crime. Even DNA only serves to rule someone OUT as a suspect.

To put it more scientifically, DNA can never, ever be more precise than 1-in-16.7 million. There are over 20 million people in New York City alone. Thus, there is about a 1-in-6 chance that every single theoretical DNA profile has at least 2 matches within the city limits alone.

In other words, God only knows how many people sit in prison in New York because a jury can’t do math. Or more precisely, because detectives get lazy and stop investigating once they get a DNA match, even if the suspect has an airtight alibi, no motive, and there’s another person already in the f**king computer who matches the DNA who has neither.

But let’s blame the jury anyway. Can’t blame the cops these days!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

I concur.

I think the poster may be referring to the type of DNA profiling used in paternity testing, where a few selected segments of DNA are compared between mother, child, and supposed father, and the odds that the man in question would share every selected segment with the child by coincidence is infinitesimal (1 in 100,000,000 unless an identical twin is involved).

But to say that DNA can never be more precise than that is absurd. Paternal testing deliberately chooses imprecision over a robust result because it’s faster and "good enough." A thorough DNA test, on the other hand, can uniquely identify a suspect even between identical twins (due to mutation).

So, yeah. That DNA is "never, ever more precise than 1-in-16.7 million" is an extraordinary claim; care to provide some extraordinary evidence for it, Chuck?

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

This will probably be pushed as the next big advance in DNA testing, but with better understanding of human genetics, this will still not be the Silver Bullet it’s portrayed as. Just read up on things like Human Chimerism some time. The article you linked talks about how normal mutations cause differences in DNA so that even supposedly “identical” DNA from identical twins can be differentiated, but it’s still assuming that a person only has ONE set of DNA to start. This is now being challenged by doctors as human genetics is studied using far more samples. Particularly more samples from the same person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Shoe Prints and DNA

Sadly (for my TV watching habits during college), I remember that chimerism was a plot point in an OG CSI episode. They couldn’t figure out why the DNA didn’t match for the guy they were sure had to be their suspect, until they found out he was a “chimera” after like, absorbing a twin in utero or whatever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

2^24 = ~16.7 Million

I think Chuck’s saying that DNA testing can check for 24 distinct differences, for a maximum granularity of 1 in 16 million. People (typically) have 23 (usually-identical) chromosomes, so that averages to checking for about one difference per chromosome.

…I have no idea what those 24 distinct differences would be, but correctly counting the number of reliably measurable differences in a human genome is where the science is. A 23-and-me test screens for ~90 medically relevant data points.

madasahatter (profile) says:

Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

The problem with a lot of forensic evidence is it is misused. Bite marks, shoe prints, etc. are not conclusive but exclusive. If the shows were a Nike, then anyone who does not own a pair is in the clear. Also, wear patterns and size can reduce the number of candidates to a manageable number. It would be enough to get a search warrant. But when this evidence is used as conclusive by itself is when you have a serious problem.

Chuck says:

Re: Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

I already replied separately about the DNA (below) but I wanted to address this, too.

Wear patterns on shoe prints are, much like bite marks, very subjective. You’re right that they can be useful if, for example, the shoe print is made of blood on a flat, hard surface. However, if the same “wear pattern” is found in soft soil or mud in the back yard of a crime scene, it’s still 100% useless. The dirt/mud can shift in mere seconds (and in fact, DOES shift the instant pressure is released from the ground, i.e. the very first step the perp takes after they make the print) so any wear pattern on a soft surface is at very, very best a poorly educated guess.

The problem is that, while the scientists who study this know this, when a prosecutor asks them on a witness stand, you can bet your ass they’re going to state “with near certainty” that the wear pattern matches, even if they can’t be even 50% sure.

I’m not even saying they’re totally making the evidence up, though in TFA the dentists clearly were. I’m just saying that, if you’re the scientist here, the prosecutor doesn’t tell you that your shoe print evidence is the ONLY evidence you have. The scientist assumes they have other evidence and that no responsible prosecutor would being someone to trial on a shoe print alone. The prosecutor either just wants a win, or assumes that the scientist is just being cautious and they’re really certain the shoe print matches. The cop assumes that the DA would refuse to prosecute if their case wasn’t strong enough. The DA assumes the cop wouldn’t bring them the case at all if they weren’t sure. Etc, etc, ad nauseam.

In other words, the science for shoe prints does not translate well to a criminal trial EVEN when it happens to be intellectually honest, and mutual assumptions kill.

diginess says:

Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

It doesn’t matter how much evidence you have if the prosecution, police, and witnesses conspire to bury the forensic evidence and then insist on a match with no proof.

That’s criminal behavior, and both of the dentists’ assets should be seized. In addition, all of the cases of this prosecutor should be re-opened and the prosecutor fired, as well as the detectives involved.

Chuck says:

Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

Replying to myself since so many people at once questioned this.

The math is based on two things. First, the type of DNA profiling used in virtually every criminal case in the US is STR Analysis, because the main CODIS database only stores this type of result.

STR has had odd-defying false positives:

Second, as noted by the AC below, only around 0.1% of the DNA in a human DNA strand is actually different between individual humans. There is a LOT of data in that 0.1%, but the potential combinations of that data are, still, only 16.7 million possible combinations.

Thus, DNA can never be more precise than 1-in-16.7 million.

Even then, if only a partial DNA match is found, or if the replication process replicates the wrong section for testing, the odds of a false positive go up dramatically. A 100% complete strand of DNA is easy to find in most crime scenes. However, in the same drop of fluid, there are many times more incomplete strands. The odds that a technician manages to extract a complete strand after even 3 or 4 attempts are very low. Thus, they are comparing only PART of the DNA, which they then replicate over and over until they now have millions of copies of the same INCOMPLETE strand, before they do analysis. If you are only comparing a small subset of the DNA from the crime to a suspect’s FULL DNA profile (because the suspect’s DNA is pulled, uncontaminated and not degraded, from the suspect themself) then the odds that your partial, replicated strand match SOME parts of the suspect’s DNA (but not all) are very, very high. It’s about 1-in-20,000, but that’s still insanely high to convict someone of murder over.

But, as stated, BEST CASE SCENARIO, it will never ever be better than 1-in-16.7 million.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

I need to see a source beyond your imagination for that 1-in-16 million number.

There are over 6,000,000,000 base pairs in human DNA. 0.1% of that is 6,000,000.

There are 4 different values that a Watson-Crick base-pair can have: A-T, G-C, C-G, and T-A.

Therefore, the number of possible DNA combinations within the human genome is 4^6,000,000. Doing some substitution, that becomes approximately 10^120,000.

There are approximately 10^80 atoms in the universe., So, if every atom in the universe was itself a universe with 10^80 atoms, there would still be fewer atoms in all of those universes combined than different possible DNA combinations for people.

Just for comparison’s sake, if you took your ~10^7 possibilities and turned those into atoms, you wouldn’t have enough to make a single bacterium.

Now, I’ll admit that not every one of those 10^120,000 variations will result in a human being that will even survive to childbirth. In fact, the vast, vast, vast majority probably wouldn’t. But the idea that an absolutely massive number like that can be reduced to 16,700,000 just through failure to thrive is ludicrous.

To say that there are only 16 million different ways to combine DNA and get a human being… It’s like saying that there are only 24 binary choices that can be flipped one way or another, like a switch, on a human. That everyone on the planet has, for each of their 23 chromosomes, either choice A or choice B, with no variation beyond that.

Well, as I’ve said previously: it’s an extraordinary claim. I’d like to see your proof of it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Shoe Prints and DNA

I just wanted to correct my own math here.

For some reason I thought that (10^80)^2 was 10^6400, so I only stacked the universe two deep (as 80^3 would be 512,000), which I later realized was completely wrong. When you square a number, you double the exponent, you don’t square it.

So you’d need to nest your universes (that is, each atom contains a universe of 10^80 atoms in which each atom contains a universe of…) ten layers deep before your atom count started getting comparable to 10^120,000.

16,700,000 atoms is still a particle that you’d need an absurdly high-powered microscope to see.

How you reduce the former number to the latter is something that I’d still like to know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Justice is just a mill

They stopped even “acting” like they care about Justice. At most they only pay thinly veiled lip service to it.


No that is not a fucking joke either, because we asked for it.
Every time we assume guilt upon accusation we seal our fates further.

Every white person is a racist,
Every black person is a criminal,
Every brown person is an illegal,
Every russian is a commie bastard,
Every oriential is a ninja or mathematical baddass,
Every male is a rapist,
Every woman is a victim…

get the idea yet?

David says:

Missing detail:

You know, this kind of "this guy’s life is not worth as much as my career" attitude makes me wonder just what race Robert Stinson belongs to. Because the lackadaisical use of him for career advancement purposes makes it look like he was considered an Untermensch by those dentists.

A few Google searches later, I see a "wrongfully convicted Robert Lee Stinson". Black.

I rather suspect that is him, and I am not surprised. This is the kind of shit why it is important to wean all pupils and citizens off stupid ideas like "white supremacy". Because it leads to humans treating other humans as disposable and lets them act in despicable manners without feeling ashamed. We will still have enough injustice around without such ideologies, but at least there will be fewer socially acceptable ways of self-justification for them.

Anonymous Coward says:

And yet David, you go and search to see what color Stinson was. There is your racist bias.

It doesn’t matter if Stinson was black or white, just that our justice system failed miserably. You say it is because our Justice system is racist, I say it is because our Justice system sucks. If he was white, would it be ok?

David says:

Re: Re:

I was not actually interested in the justice system here: it relied on expert witnesses. I don’t know how much care went into the judgment given that the experts were considered reliable.

What the history shows, however, is that the expert witnesses themselves could not bothered being extra careful to avoid becoming a seminal part of a miscarriage of justice costing a man several decades of his life.

And an obvious reason for that may be that they did consider his life worth more than a fraction of their own. And like it or not: in the U.S. this stance is correlated with racism, the kind of racism that considers it ok to drive a car into a crowd of people who consider racism wrong enough to protest on the streets. It’s ok to kill people who are not “one of ours”.

I have no idea about the role of the court here. But the role of the expert witnesses seems rather well documented, and their behavior strongly suggests that they consider the victim of their machinations less of a human being than themselves. And yes, racism remains one of the strongest reasons for that in the U.S. Even more so if we are talking about 23 years ago. Fortunately people become less cavalier about it.

You claim that not turning a blind eye to racism is as bad as not turning a blind eye to race.


JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

My dad used to watch those shows all the time, and I’d occasionally watch one while visiting. It was APPALLING how many were nothing more than the flimsiest circumstantial evidence coupled with relatives of the victims not “liking” the accused. And of course, the show makes it out (most of the time) as a Grand Feat of Long Deserved Justice finally being served on the scum. Every once in a while, they’d turn that around and portray the SAME DAMN CASE as a Grand Miscarriage of Justice on the poor railroaded accused.

vki (profile) says:

Raymond Rawson at it again

Oh my. This is the same odontologist who got Ray Krone convicted. He was also released after decades behind bars for murder. If Raymond Rawson loses immunity, there may be more than one lawsuit, and a good bit of evidence of his bad behavior.

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