A guide for:
- Police Officers
- Forensic Medical Examiners
- Social Services
Produced by the British Association for Forensic Odontology
© BAFO 2002
What is a forensic odontologist and what is the scope of their work?
Forensic odontology is a branch of forensic medicine and, in the interests of justice, deals with the proper examination, handling and presentation of dental evidence in a court of law. The work of a forensic odontologist covers:
- Identification of unknown human remains through dental records and assisting at the scene of a mass disaster
- Age estimations of both living and deceased persons including neo-natal remains
- Analysis of bite marks found on victims of attack
- Identification of bitemarks in other substances such as wood, leather and foodstuffs
- Analysis of weapon marks using the principles of bite mark analysis
- Presentation of bite and weapon mark evidence in court as an expert witness
- Assistance in building up a picture of lifestyle and diet at an archeological site.
Identification of human remains.
Unidentified bodies come to light frequently, having drowned, burned, been murdered, having committed suicide or died from natural causes. Usually sufficient evidence is apparent to be able to positively identify the body, but from time to time, this identification will rely on dental evidence. All mouths are different and the trained eye of the forensic odontologist will be able to offer a considerable amount of useful information. Most obvious will be to provide an accurate charting of the teeth and fillings present to compare with dental records of missing persons. This often leads to a positive identification.
Despite recent advances in DNA technology, dental identification still offers a rapid and cost effective approach.
Even if only a few teeth are available, an opinion can still be offered on age, habits, oral hygiene, and individual features which may match with ante-mortem records.
Where the subject has no teeth, useful information can still be gleaned from the study of any dentures and by X-raying the jaws and skull.
It is important that the services of a forensic odontologist be sought early in these cases, as much time consuming police work can be avoided given a dental report early in the investigation.
The mummified remains of a female were discovered in the disused cellar of a hotel. At post mortem the forensic odontologist, by studying the development of the tooth roots was able to determine the age at death to within 12 months. This led to a name being suggested by the Missing Persons Bureau and a positive identification using dental records within 48 hours.
Marks are frequently seen on the victims of assault including child abuse but not recognised as bites. This vital evidence often goes unrecognised by the untrained person. Any curved bruise should be treated as suspicious and the sevices of a forensic odontologist sought early in the investigation. Not only will an opinion be given but the odontologist will be able to work with the photographer to demonstrate the bite to advantage using different light sources.
It will also be the function of the forensic odontologist to take dental impressions of any suspects, be prepared to make a comparison and, if necessary, to present the evidence in court as an expert witness.
The forensic odontologist will also be able to recognise and record bite marks in other substances such as foodstuffs (apples, cheese, chocolate), leather (key rings and belts) and wood (pencils).
The shape of the bitemark can give useful clues about the person who caused it and may lead to the implication or exclusion of an individual under investigation.
An assailant punched his victim and then threatened to kill her. In the struggle he bit her on the breast. A forensic odontologist directed the photography of the bite mark, took impressions of the suspect's teeth and prepared transparent overlays to make a comparison. This evidence convinced an Old Bailey jury that the accused was, indeed, the attacker. He was convicted and sentenced accordingly.
Using the same digital imaging techniques as used for bite mark analysis, the forensic odontologist can make similar comparisons between offensive weapons and injuries seen on victims.
A forensic odontologist was asked to investigate a possible bite mark on the victim of a sexual attack. The mark proved to be too vague for comparison, but the bruise left by a belt buckle was clearly seen on the victim's thigh By making a digital image of the suspect's belt and comparing this with a scaled photograph of the bruise, a direct link was established and the perpetrator then pleaded guilty to the offence.
How can I contact a forensic odontologist?
Most dentists do not have the necessary expertise to deal with forensic cases. Since 1984 there have been recognised postgraduate courses in forensic odontology and dentists who have successfully completed these courses will have the letters 'Dip.F.Od.' or 'D.F.O.' among their qualifications. There is now an M.Sc. qualification in forensic odontology.
For further information please contact:
Dr Simon Sampson
The British Association for Forensic Odontology
Tel: 07971 898065