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If Ted Bundy's Trial Was Today, He May Have Walked Free — Thanks To Bite Mark Evidence
"Analyzing bite marks is part art and part science, isn't it?” a defense attorney for Ted Bundy asked during one of his murder trials. Turns out, according to experts, Bundy's lawyer was pretty much right.
Serial killer Ted Bundy was convicted of murder twice and received three separate death sentences, which today seems like a no-brainer. While Ted Bundy maintained his innocence until (almost) the end — then he started confessing — it's a given now that he was responsible for the murders of at least 30 women. But the thing is, if Bundy's original trial had been held today, he very well may have walked free: because the prosecution focused so much on bite mark evidence.
On July 24, 1979, Bundy was found guilty of killing two female students at Florida State University. Both women — Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy — were bludgeoned to death in their sorority house during the early morning hours of January 15, 1978. As for Levy, “there was a double bite mark on her left buttock. Her killer had literally torn at her buttocks with his teeth, leaving four distinct rows of marks where those teeth had sunk in,” author Ann Rule, wrote in her 1980 true crime novel about Bundy, entitled “The Stranger Beside Me: The True Crime Story of Ted Bundy.” She also insisted that a “forensic odontologist would be able to match those bite marks to a suspect’s teeth as precisely as a fingerprint expert could identify the loops and whorls of a suspect’s fingers.”
In fact, forensic odontologist Dr. Richard Souviron testified at the first trial along with a display board. On the board was a photo of the bite marks on Levy. He put a transparent sheet, which showed Bundy’s teeth impression, on top of that photo and stated, ”They line up exactly!”
He even testified within a reasonable degree of certainty that the suspect’s teeth matched the bite mark.
However, Dr. Niki Osborne, a forensic research scientist based in New Zealand who studies decision-making and reliability in forensic sciences, says such a statement is impossible.
“To say that Ted Bundy is the source of this bite mark based only on a comparison of his teeth to the impression is a scientifically impossible statement to make,” she told Oxygen.com. “To make such a statement, you also need to know the likelihood of observing those same features if someone — or something — other than Bundy’s teeth left that impression. Without a large, objective database of teeth to compare to, such likelihood ratios cannot be calculated.”
She added that “based on a comparison of his teeth to the impression, it may be possible to say that you ‘cannot exclude’ Bundy as the source of the bite mark’” but that such a statement is “critically different than saying that ‘Bundy is the source of the bite mark to the exclusion of all others.' That is how it how it appears to have been used in the Ted Bundy case.”
As for the bite mark on Levy, Osborne noted, “When talking about a bite mark on the breast or the buttocks where the skin is soft and malleable, there’s a lot more room for distortion. The more distortion you have, the more ambiguity and subjectivity you have, the more room you have for bias and error.”
She said skin is not a clear and precise impression material. Additionally, she explained that teeth may make a different impression each time a bite is made, depending on a myriad of factors.
But in Bundy’s trial, the jury was convinced, even though the defense attempted to frame bite mark evidence as “primitive.”
Bundy's attorney Ed Harvey even asked Souviron during the trial, "Analyzing bite marks is part art and part science, isn't it?” according to Rule’s book.
Souviron responded, “I think that’s a fair statement.” He went on to admit that his conclusions are “a matter of opinion.”
Still, the jury accepted it as science. That, along with eyewitness testimony, sealed his fate.
Osborne doesn’t think that would happen today.
“If the Ted Bundy trial was going on today, I hope the statements of scientific certainty relating to the bite mark evidence would be met with a lot more scrutiny, if not rejected entirely,” she said. “However, if the case was tried today there would probably be a lot of other evidence, scientific evidence, that could have been used. For example, bite marks can retain the biter’s DNA which could provide a more scientific link to the biter.”
Osborne concluded that she doesn’t feel bite mark comparisons should be used as scientific evidence in court.
Only recently has the practice started receiving scrutiny.
Chris Fabricant, Director of Strategic Litigation for the Innocence Project previously told Oxygen.com that the Innocence Project searches for cases where a conviction was based off bite mark evidence because those cases are so flimsy. Often the people convicted are actually innocent.
“I ask my paralegals to get me any case that involves bite mark evidence because any case that rests on bite mark evidence is unreliable,” Fabricant said. “Every single one of those cases that we have litigated, unless it is still currently pending — the defendant has been exonerated.”
The Innocence Project has helped get dozens of wrongful convictions and indictments which relied heavily on bite mark analysis overturned.
“Bite mark evidence represents everything that is wrong with forensic science in this country today,” Fabricant said. “It’s grossly unreliable even under ideal circumstances and it has contributed to more wrongful convictions and indictments than any other technique that is still admissible by criminal trials today.”
He insisted bite mark practitioners do not undergo any proficiency testing and actually have no idea how often they are right and how often they are wrong when it comes to bite mark analysis.
A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council backs up Fabricant’s stance. That report found that bite mark analysis lacks scientific validity.
Yes, bite mark evidence did help convict Bundy, who would eventually admit himself to killing dozens of women. But does that make the process right?
“It could be really tempting in the Ted Bundy case to hold bite mark evidence up and say, ‘They got it right therefore it is valuable,'” Osborne said. “Even though, yes in this instance, it appears that Bundy was the source of the bite, this does not mean that such evidence is going to be reliable in every instance.”
[Photo: Getty Images]