Taking a Bite Out of Crime

The science behind the various fields and specialties of dentistry are captivating. Take for example the role forensic dentistry in mainstream television and books with shows such as Bones and CSI Las Vegas, or even the gripping tales of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

Although Sherlock Holmes was a fictional character, to some, the way Doyle vastly contributed to the field of forensics is unquestionable. One of the biggest impacts being the “exchange principle” wherein two things come into contact with one another and one leaves a trace--the ramifications of which is enormous as evidence can last for years, decades and even centuries.

While forensic dentistry, or odontology is a growing area of forensic medicine, it has in fact been part of forensic science for more than 100 years. Its primary function is as the branch of forensic medicine which deals with the proper handling and examination of dental evidence and proper evaluation and presentation of dental findings in the interest of justice.

Let’s observe the case of notorious serial killer Ted Bundy. During an exhaustive man hunt after his escape from jailors in January 1978, Bundy committed his final and most heinous crime. He was recaptured and eventually went on trial for his crimes and the only piece of evidence was a bite mark he left on one of the victims. Having taken casts of his teeth, investigators were able to show that Bundy’s teeth were unevenly aligned and several of them were chipped. Bite marks, like fingerprints are unique and it was through the casts of his teeth, and photographs of the bite marks on the victim, that a forensic odontologist was able to present key evidence instrumental in Bundy’s conviction.

Missing teeth, fractures or malformed teeth, as well as position and angle of the incisors all display unique characteristics which act like the distinct lines of a fingerprint. Whether a visual impression taken from the victim, or physical one found at the crime scene, the science of forensic odontology can be combined with known historical factors when teeth or bite marks are present.

John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln April 14, 1865 and escaped to Virginia where he was surrounded by the US Calvary and shot dead on the spot. For years however, rumors spread that he escaped and was still alive. To disprove naysayers, his body was disinterred in 1893 and reexamined. Booth’s body was positively identified by the family dentist by the peculiar formation of his jaw noted on dental records.

It can be said then that the role of dentistry in revealing evidence which may otherwise go unidentified can be paramount to justice when forensic techniques are employed. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.” Indeed, Mr. Holmes. Indeed.