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.