Influential Texas panel recommends halt to use of bite-mark evidence

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - An influential Texas scientific panel recommended on Thursday that bite-mark analysis not be admissible as evidence in courts, a decision experts said could lead judicial systems in other states to exclude it too.

The Texas Forensic Science Commission panel recommended a moratorium on bite-mark evidence until there is science to support its admissibility. The decision will go to the full body as early as Friday, where it will likely be approved.

Bite-mark evidence has been used in U.S. courts for decades, most often to identify suspects in murders, sexual assaults and child abuse through marks on the flesh of victims.

But techniques to determine the source of marks are unreliable, and human flesh is not a good source to record the marks, studies presented to the panel showed. In some studies, experts were often divided on whether they were seeing human bite marks, let alone matching them to a specific individual.

"This commission’s findings are incredibly significant because no other agency or scientific body has ever opined on the admissibility of bite mark analysis," said Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation for the Innocence Project, which sought the review.

"It has been admissible as evidence for more than 50 years and thousands have been convicted as a result," he said.

Texas has one of the best-funded forensic science commissions in the United States, and its findings are often cited in criminal cases nationwide.

The panel recommended bite-mark analysis be put on hold until there are scientific standards to determine what is a bite mark and proficiency testing of individuals who analyze them.

It also recommended a review of cases where convictions were largely based on bite mark evidence. There was no indication on how many cases that might be.

While bite marks analysis is used less frequently in U.S. courts now due to DNA testing, it is still used in other countries.

"Today is the beginning of the end for the use of bite-mark analysis in courts all over the country," said Peter Bush, a forensic dentistry expert at the University at Buffalo.

But Dr. David Senn, a bite-mark analysis proponent at the Dental School of the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, said the panel's recommendation was off the mark.

"Bite-mark evidence is too important in the investigation of certain situations and in the courtroom to be set aside," he said.

(Story refiles to fix name in 11th paragraph to University at Buffalo from University of Buffalo)

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)