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Kristin Hohman serves as Associate Editor for DPR.
Our mouths are carrying mountains of information. Systemic health, diet, habits, and geography can all be determined by studying teeth. Dentistry has also been used in the identification of human remains and in murder convictions. We take a look at several cases involving forensic dentistry.
Our mouths are carrying mountains of information. Systemic health, diet, habits, geography, and even social behavior and changes over time in fossilized teeth can all be determined by studying teeth. Dentistry has also been used in the identification of human remains.
While forensic dentistry (or forensic odontology) may appear to be a 20th or 21st-century practice, the first case of identifying remains using dentition is thought to come from late 12th-century India, although it can perhaps be traced back to the Roman Empire. Other than identifying decedents, dental evidence has also been used to convict perpetrators of alleged crimes using bitemark analysis. While valid criticism of bitemark analysis has called the science into question, it’s fascinating to consider no matter where you personally stand on the subject. Here are 7 famous cases involving forensic odontology.
Julia Agrippina was the wife of Roman emperor Claudius and mother of emperor Nero. Around 49 BC, Agrippina felt threatened by a wealthy woman—Lollia Paulina—who she felt could be a threat to her marriage. Agrippina feared Paulina so much that she called for Roman soldiers to assassinate Paulina and bring back the head of her rival. Once soldiers returned with the proof, it’s said that Paulina’s facial features were so distorted, Agrippina could only confirm the death by recognizing distinctive characteristics of Paulina’s teeth. This is thought to be the first known example of dental identification.
Rev. Burroughs was a minister in Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. On May 4, 1692, Rev. Burroughs was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft after several local girls accused him of trying to recruit them. Other than hearsay, the only evidence against Rev. Burroughs was bite marks found on some of his alleged victims.
During his trial, Rev. Burrough’s mouth was “pried open and the prosecution compared his teeth with the teeth marks left on the bodies of several injured girls present in the courtroom.” Shortly after, the reverend was convicted and hanged for his crimes, making him just 1 of 6 men and 14 women to be executed for the crime of witchcraft during the trials. Massachusetts governor called for the end of the witch trials just 2 months later.
Paul Revere’s midnight ride is 1 of the most iconic stories to come out of the American Revolutionary War. But it likely would not have happened without the intervention of Boston physician Dr Joseph Warren. A revolutionary leader, Dr Warren had many connections to Boston’s revolutionary network, and this is how he learned that British troops were headed to Lexington on the night of April 18, 1775. He sent out 2 riders, Revere and William Dawes to raise the alarm.
Dr Warren would be killed during the Battle of Bunker Hill just 2 months later, on June 17, 1775. After the battle, the British buried Dr Warren and another causality in a shallow grave. His body was exhumed about 10 months later, where Revere, who dabbled in dentistry himself, was able to identify the remains due to a false tooth he had placed for Dr Warren. This is thought to have been the first case of forensic dentistry in the country.
Canadian serial killer Wayne Boden was active from 1969 to 1971 in Montreal and Calgary. He was charged with the murder of 4 women. Montreal police contacted local orthodontist Gordon Swann to examine bite marks on 1 of the victims. A cast was made based on Boden’s teeth and Dr Swann was able to demonstrate that 29 points of similarity existed between Boden’s dentition and the bite marks on the victim. Boden was the first murderer to be convicted using odontological evidence in North America. He was sentenced to 4 life terms and died in 2006.
Walter Marx was arrested for the murder of a California woman. The case, The People of California v. Marx took place in 1975. The victim was bitten several times and after Marx was identified as the main suspect, dental impressions were made of his teeth. These samples, along with other models were evaluated using several techniques, including 2-dimensional comparisons and acetate overlays. Expert testimony confirmed that 17 identification characteristics matched Marx’s teeth and he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. This landmark case established evidentiary standards for forensic dentistry.
Perhaps 1 of the most famous criminal cases involving dentition was that of Theodore Bundy. The serial killer committed numerous brutal crimes as he swept through the Pacific Northwest, Utah, and Colorado. In Murray, Utah on November 8, 1974, 18-year-old Carol DaRonch was approached by a police officer at a local mall, who said her car was broken into and she needed to accompany him to the station. The officer was actually Bundy and when DaRonch pointed out that the road they were driving down didn’t lead to a police station, Bundy attacked her but DaRonch escaped. Bundy was arrested on August 16, 1975, and DaRonch was able to identify him as her assailant. Bundy was convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 1 to 15 years in prison. He was then extradited to Colorado on a murder charge, but was able to escape twice—once in June 1977 but was caught about a week later, and once again on December 30, 1977.
After his second escape, Bundy was added to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, and he eventually traveled south to Tallahassee, Florida. Once there, on January 15, 1978, Bundy entered the Chi Omega sorority house on the campus of Florida State University, where he murdered 2 young women and attacked 4 others. Bundy was arrested about a month later—this time for good. Bundy’s trial for the Chi Omega murders began in June 1979 and was the first trial to be televised nationally in the US. The only piece of physical evidence that prosecutors had was a bite mark on the body of 1 of the sorority house victims. Bundy initially refused to give an impression of his teeth, but a court order forced him to comply. Luckily for the prosecution, Bundy had a distinctive bite with chipped and misaligned teeth that was said to perfectly match the victim’s bite mark. He was convicted, sentenced to death, and put to death in January 1989.
On December 29, 1991, a 36-year-old woman was found dead in the men’s restroom of the Phoenix, Arizona bar where she worked. Little was found in the way of physical evidence, so police relied on bite marks on the victim to find a suspect. A regular bar patron, Ray Krone, was labeled as a potential suspect. Police asked Krone to make an impression of his teeth using Styrofoam. He was arrested on charges of kidnapping and murder just 2 days after the victim was found.
Krone maintained his innocence during his trial in 1992. Experts for the prosecution testified that the bite marks found on the victim matched the Styrofoam impressions of Krone’s teeth. This was enough to convince a jury and Krone was sentenced to death and a consecutive 21-year term, respectively. He was granted a new trial in 1996, but his conviction was upheld, mainly on the prosecution’s expert bite-mark testimony. However, the judge cited doubts over Krone’s guilt and instead, sentenced him to life in prison.
After serving 10 years in prison, DNA evidence proved Krone’s innocence in 2002. Saliva found on the victim matched a man named Kenneth Phillips, who was never considered a suspect despite living a short distance from the bar where the woman worked. Krone was exonerated and released from prison on April 8, 2002. He is the 100th former death row inmate freed due to a wrongful conviction since the US reinstated capital punishment in 1976. He is just the 12th person to be on death row to be exonerated through post-conviction DNA evidence. Since his release, Krone has become an anti-capital punishment activist is an active member of Witness to Innocence, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to abolishing the death penalty in the US.