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Faulty Science Still Admissible Evidence in Many States

by Kevin Bliss

More than 40 percent of wrongful convictions are based on faulty forensic science, according to the Innocence Project, which works to help exonerate prisoners it believes have been wrongfully convicted. The nonprofit has been responsible for the exoneration of over 160 people convicted by flawed forensic science.

Robert Lee Stinson was convicted in 1985 of raping and murdering 63-year-old Ione Cychosz in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Evidence suggested that her body was covered with bite marks of someone with irregular dentition.

Milwaukee police hired Dr. L. Thomas Johnson of Marquette University, a pioneer in the field of forensic odontology, to examine the marks. He testified that the bite marks were made by someone with a missing or cracked upper right tooth. Impressions were checked against a mold made of Stinson’s teeth, and Johnson went on the witness stand to state that, “with no margin of error,” the bite marks “would have to have been made by Robert Lee Stinson.” A second odonatologist, Dr. Raymond Rawson, supported this testimony.

Stinson was convicted, and it would be 23 years before Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project got his case overturned. Findley said recent research proved that the bite mark forensics used were flawed from the start. The forensic science is precise when matching teeth to dental records for helping to identify accident victims, but it’s unreliable when examining bite marks to solve crime. 

Human skin does not retain exact indentations. “It stretches. It bloats. You bruise in funny patterns. And that’s where the science has completely fallen apart,” Findley stated.

In addition, DNA at the crime scene was matched to the real killer, Moses Price.

Finally, at age 44, Stinson walked out of prison a free man in 2019. He received $5,000 for every year he spent in prison as compensation.

Represented by attorney Heather Lewis Donnell, Stinson filed a federal civil rights case against the City of Milwaukee and doctors Johnson and Rawson. Donnell alleges that the science never supported the level of certainty expressed by the doctors in the 1985 trial. “That they had the ability, their science had the ability to say, ‘it was this person, and only this person,’” stated Donnell skeptically. “Because skin is malleable.”

Johnson published a study on bite-mark analysis in 2014, which stated that it was possible to narrow the search for a source of a bite mark to about 5 percent of the population, contradicting his “no margin of error” testimony at Stinson’s trial.

This case went to trial in 2019, and before the jury could be sent out for deliberations, the City of Milwaukee settled out of court for $7.5 million. Other terms of the settlement involving the doctors remain confidential.

Bite-mark analysis is just one of many modern forensic sciences being debunked. A report prepared in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences stated that there were serious problems largely due to lack of coordination and undersourcing. Such problems led Findley to join defense experts Dean Strang and Jerry Buting in creating the Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, with the intent of improving the sciences used to support forensics. Much of the faulty science is still admissible evidence in many states.

Stinson’s conviction is still the controlling case for bite-mark analysis in Wisconsin. “We’re not suggesting that all forensic disciplines are useless. They’re not, but what we are suggesting is that they need to be improved,” Findley said. Their first symposium was held at Northwestern University last June. 



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