By Nate Hendley
A shocking new Netflix documentary series called The Innocence Files has highlighted the role shoddy forensics plays in wrongful murder convictions.
The initial episodes focus on Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, two African-American men accused of sexually assaulting and murdering little girls in Brooksville, Mississippi. The victims were both killed in the same community within a few months of each other, in the early 1990s.
Bite marks on the bodies of the two little girls matched the teeth of the two men. Or so claimed experts in the field of forensic odontology (the name given to the application of dentistry in legal proceedings). Brooks and Brewer were both convicted in separate trials.
The Innocence Project—a legal/research organization founded to investigate wrongful convictions, got involved. DNA analysis revealed Brooks and Brewer were innocent. DNA taken from the victims was a match, however, for a sex predator named Justin Albert Johnson.
Johnson confessed to both crimes and Brooks and Brewer were released from jail, after spending years locked up, accused of horrendous offenses.
As for the bite mark evidence that helped convict the two men, consider it junk science at best.
The 2009 report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward” by the National Research Council of the National Academies, cast doubt on the reliability and validity of bite mark evidence. As the paper points out, swelling, healing, skin elasticity and the unevenness of bites “severely limits the validity of forensic odontology.”
“The scientific basis is insufficient to conclude that bite mark comparisons can result in a conclusive match,” adds the report.
A September 2016 report, made by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology had this to say:
“Bite mark analysis does not meet the scientific standards for foundational validity and is far from meeting such standard. To the contrary, available scientific evidence strongly suggests that examiners cannot consistently agree on whether an injury is a human bite mark and cannot identify the source of a bite-mark with reasonable accuracy,” reads the report.
The awful story of Brooks and Brewer sadly parallels Ron Moffatt’s ordeal, which I wrote about in my book, The Boy on the Bicycle: A Forgotten Case of Wrongful Conviction in Toronto.
In 1956, fourteen-year-old Ron was wrongly convicted of killing seven-year-old Wayne Mallette in Toronto, thanks to a coerced confession and bite mark “evidence”. It was claimed that bite marks on Wayne’s body matched Ron’s teeth.
Sadly, two more Toronto children died in similar fashion before the real killer, a sexual predator named Peter Woodcock was captured. Ron was given a retrial in May 1957. Dental experts testified they had made a mistake, and that Ron’s teeth were not a match for bite marks on Wayne’s body.
Ron was acquitted and Woodcock (who testified at the retrial that he was indeed the real killer of Wayne Mallette) was sent to a psychiatric facility.
Unfortunately, as The Innocence Files points out, U.S. courts are still willing to accept bite mark evidence.
The Boy on the Bicycle is available at Chapters-Indigo, Amazon, Barnes and Noble or from Publisher, Five Rivers.
(Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based journalist, speaker and author. His website http://www.natehendley.com/ offers more details about his books and background)