Court Denies Kunco Relief in “Recaptured Bite Mark” Case

The court has recently denied relief, due to legal technicalities in the 1991 Kunco v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania case where perhaps one of the most egregious uses of bitemark evidence was used to convict a man to 45-90 years in prison. Radley Balko, a Senior Editor of Reason Magazine first wrote about this case in 2009, which he published on his web site at http://www.theagitator.com/2009/04/24/another-dubious-bite-mark-case-this-time-in-pennsylvania/.

The case involves the brutal rape and torture of a 55-year-old woman. Two ABFO board certified forensic dentists became involved in the case 5 months after the crime. They were hired to analyze a bitemark on the shoulder of the victim. This request came only after more than 40 pieces of forensic evidence collected at the crime scene, which included hair; blood and fiber did not link to the police’s suspect.

The police had photographed the bitemark at the time of the crime but failed to include a scale in the photograph as a reference, which is required to compare the bitemark to a suspect’s dentition. To rectify this situation the ABFO experts resorted to a novel photographic technique that they had learned from Dr. Michael West, which they claimed to show the bitemark, despite the 5 months of healing which had taken place.

The Innocence Project first took this case on in 1993 and appealed on the basis of the novel UV photographic technique the experts used to “recapture” the bitemark 5 months later. The experts learned the technique from former ABFO member and now dis-credited forensic analyst, Dr. Michael West (see previous post). The Innocence Project used Dr. Gregory Golden as the forensic dental photography expert who testified that the UV reflectance photographic technique was unreliable. He was opposed in court by Dr. Robert Barsley who the court felt satisfactorily rebutted Dr. Golden’s testimony since some sort of marks could be seen in the UV reflectance “recaptured photograph” purported to be a bitemark. There was no discussion at the time surrounding the ability of this bitemark without details to be used to identify a specific individual. Historically this was at a time when bitemarks were being used and accepted in the courts across the country with an irrational exuberance. It was only later as DNA that has been recovered from many of these overstated and unsupported opinion bitemark cases that the reliability and validity of bitemarks have come under intense scrutiny and question by the media.

The end result of this bogus bitemark court case was the closing arguments by the prosecutor using the bitemark evidence as the nail in the coffin for the defendant proving his guilt:

[T]here’s no way, no way on this earth, for Mr. Kunco to explain how his tooth marks got on Donna Seaman’s shoulder unless you accept the fact that he’s the one who attacked and brutalized Mrs. Seaman. That’s the only explanation, ladies and gentlemen. That’s why the evidence is better than fingerprints or hair samples … [T]he bite mark on Danna Seaman’s shoulder was as good as a fingerprint. And I submit to you it was that, ladies and gentlemen, for all intents and purposes. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d submit to you that John Kunco should have just signed his name on Donna Seaman’s back, because the bite mark on Donna Seaman’s shoulder belongs to John Kunco.

Next: Part Two of this case that will show the evidence presented in court and the opinions of the Innocence Project forensic odontologists.

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Innocence Partners Raise Over $20,000 for the Innocence Project

I want to thank all those that donated to my Innocent Partner web page. As one of 233 innocent partners, we raised $20,757 for the Innocence Project. This money is being used to represent those that have been wrongfully convicted. To date 268 innocent people have been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence.

Click on the image to watch a video message of thanks.

Crime Solved with Key Salivary DNA Evidence Recovered from Bitemark

An arrest was recently made in Boston in conjunction with a 2004 unsolved rape case using DNA recovered from a bitemark. DNA evidence recovered from a bitemark went unmatched until a recently convicted felon who underwent post conviction mandated DNA sampling entered the DNA database. The felon’s DNA profile compared positively to the DNA left on the victim linking him to the crime 7 years later.

Recognizing and documenting the bitemark was critical in this case. In the act of biting, saliva was deposited onto the skin containing DNA, which was recovered by swabbing the area of the bitemark. DNA comparison has become the gold standard in which to identify an individual. One of the early promoters of using the DNA technique in bitemarks rather than matching tooth marks which have had dubious results is Dr. Michael Bowers. Dr. David Sweet in his laboratory in British Columbia is one of the pioneer researchers to isolate salivary DNA from the skin.

In another Boston bitemark case in 1998, a homicide occurred where a bitemark was found on the victim’s body. The initial suspect was arrested based on a forensic dental opinion that his dentition matched the tooth marks left on the victim’s body. When the DNA results came back from the lab the police realized that they had arrested the wrong person. This mistake resulted in a cascade of errors including the dentist being sued by the wrongfully arrested individual, the real perpetrator remaining free, and embarrassment by the authorities. It is fortunate in this case that there was DNA to prove that the initial suspect was innocent. Otherwise, he may very well have ended up wrongfully convicted spending his life in prison. This is because the forensic dentist that made the error is the most experienced and skilled bitemark analyst in the world. With his world famous notoriety he would have been impossible to oppose in court even though there is no tested science behind his bitemark analysis opinion.

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