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Category Archives: Forensic Dentistry

Crime and Science Radio: Taking A Bite Out Of Crime: An Interview with Forensic Dentist Dr. Michael Tabor

Join Jan Burke and DP Lyle as they explore the world of forensic dentistry with Dr. Mike Tabor, Chief Forensic Dentist of the State of Tennessee Office for the Medical Examiner. Learn exactly how forensic dentistry aids in corpse identification and dig into some of Dr. Tabor’s most famous cases.

 

MTabor

 

BIO: In the spring of 1973, Mike Tabor embarked on a journey that would take him down a path he could have never imagined. With a freshly earned DDS, Dr. Mike Tabor left Carson-Newman College and The University of Tennessee College of Dentistry, and began his career as a family dentist. In 1983, Dr. Tabor’s work as a family dentist took a unique turn and he found himself immersed in the highly specialized field of forensic dentistry. As one of only a handful of forensic dentists in the United States, Dr. Tabor became a highly sought after expert in this field, performing identifications and examinations on homicide victims, as well as aiding police departments, investigators and medical examiners all over the Country in the prosecution of thousands of crimes.

In September of 2001, Dr. Tabor found himself in New York, at the site of the World Trade Center terror attacks, aiding in the identification of countless victims. For Mike Tabor, this infamous and historical event forever changed his life. As a forensic dentist, Mike was no stranger to the examination of deceased victims, but the horrors of September 11th would not allow Mike, the man, to separate himself from his work as Dr. Tabor, the forensic dentist. September 11, 2011 left a lasting and emotional impression on Mike and gave him a completely new perspective on life and loss.

Dr. Mike Tabor was a featured contributor and has written an entire chapter for the Internationally Accredited Textbook, Forensic Dentistry. He has served as the president of the Tennessee State Board of Dental Examiners, and is currently the Chief Forensic Dentist for The State of Tennessee Office of the Medical Examiner, and is an energetic, engaging and highly respected and sought after public speaker. He makes his home in Nashville, with his beautiful wife, Karen and their two snow white canine children, Mollie and Millie. He is the proud father of two grown children and the doting grandfather of seven adorable grandchildren.

LISTEN: 

LINKS:

Dr. Michael Tabor’s Website: http://www.drmiketabor.com

Dr. Michael Tabor’s Blog: http://www.drmiketabor.com/blog/

Walk Of Death: http://www.amazon.com/Walk-Of-Death-Forensic-Novel/dp/1490533737

American Society of Forensic Odontology: http://asfo.org

How Stuff Works: Forensic Dentistry: http://science.howstuffworks.com/forensic-dentistry.htm

Forensic Odontology: http://www.nlada.org/forensics/for_lib/Documents/1124743291.01/425lect16.htm

International Association for Identification: http://www.theiai.org/disciplines/odontology/

Forensic Dentistry Online: https://www.forensicdentistryonline.org

Medscape: Forensic Dentistry: http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1771750-overview

Wikipedia: Forensic Dentistry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forensic_dentistry

Forensic Dentistry Careers: http://criminologycareers.about.com/od/Forensic-Science-Careers/a/Career-Profile-Forensic-Odontologist.htm

Animal and Human Bite Mark Analysis: http://www.forensic.to/webhome/bitemarks/

Crime Library: Bite Marks As Evidence: http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/forensics/bitemarks/1.html

Writers Forensics Blog: Guest Blogger: Dr. Mike Tabor: Anatomy Of A Forensic Dental Identification: http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/guest-blogger-mike-tabor-anatomy-of-a-forensic-dental-identification/

 

WalkofDeath

 

Guest Blogger: Dr. Mike Tabor: Anatomy Of A Forensic Dental Identification

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The next time you’re in deep thought imagining what your protagonist can do next to draw readers in to your plot, think not only of ‘whodunnit’, or ‘what happened’, but also, ‘who is it’? Many a successful storyline has been written about the first two, but not so many where the mystery is solving WHO this John Doe really is. For now, let’s just explore some details of how forensic identification really works. Here’s how it started out for this forensic odontologist.

In the spring of 1983, I began to assist the newly appointed state medical examiner with the identification of a ‘John Doe’, whose body had been pulled from the murky waters of the Cumberland River, here in Nashville, Tennessee.  The badly decomposed body was bloated, discolored and bore an odor that would choke most. Visual identification would be impossible. Fingerprints were long gone. DNA had yet to be perfected. Fortunately, the decedent bore a mouthful of expensive gold inlays in his molars that would uniquely differentiate him from any other person. That was my baptism in the world of forensic identification.

 

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Barely two years later, I testified in Tennessee’s first criminal trial where human bite marks would be admitted in a court of law. Opposing my testimony as expert witness was Dr. Richard Souviron, Chief Forensic Odontologist for Miami/Dade County Medical Examiner’s office.  Fresh off his appearance in the now world famous Ted Bundy trial, Dr. Souviron later became a lifelong friend and mentor.  Bundy had become the first person in US history sentenced to death where all evidence was circumstantial except for the damning bitemark he left on a victim.   All Tennessee eyes were on Souviron’s testimony, since Bundy had become well known for his serial killing rampage of over a hundred women from Seattle to Tallahassee. Souviron’s testimony was pivotal in obtaining a guilty verdict. The fact that Bundy had been employed at a suicide prevention hotline desk made this case all the more daunting.

Another notorious case in middle Tennessee involved the mysterious disappearance of the wife of a prominent Nashville attorney. Janet March suddenly disappeared in 1996, and her body has never been discovered.

Missing persons departments have worked tirelessly for decades.  Since media presence was so high, any time bones were found, our medical examiner’s team was called to the scene. Many times, it was animal remains, but every time it was a dead end. After over a decade, her husband was the first Tennessean to be convicted of a capital offense without ever producing a body.  Just when you think it is not possible, then the truth often takes a mysterious turn!  It proves that oftentimes, the truth is stranger than fiction.

No forensic experience, however, would surpass the enormous identification task while working with victims of the 9-11 attack of the World Trade Center. I had the privilege of assisting the New York Medical Examiner’s Office in the identification of those victims. Over an eleven month period, forensic scientists identified 1,000 of the roughly 3,000 victims of that horrific event. A large majority of those ID’s were done by dental record comparison. As recent as May 10, 2014, random identifications are made, over a decade since the attack. There are still almost 8,000 remaining unidentifiable body parts stored at the ONYME.  http://news.msn.com/us/9-11-remains-returned-to-world-trade-center-site#tscptme

There are three basic methods used to confirm the identity of an individual. Fingerprints have been used the longest and have become a very reliable method of identification. It makes one assumption: fingerprints are like snowflakes, in that there are no two that are exactly alike. But fingerprints are not durable in weather and environmental factors, and will disintegrate within days in the hot summer.

Around 2000, DNA became, and is now, considered the gold standard for identification. DNA’s reliability is unquestioned, especially since it is the only scientific method able to quantify the accuracy of its determination.  There is one major drawback. The microscopic evidence is very sensitive to the elements. There are several types of DNA, and most are easily destroyed and can be lost within days after elemental exposure.

The third method is that of dental characteristic comparison. Like all methods, it requires the comparison of a known sample to an unknown sample. We must have dental records and/or xrays of an individual who authorities think it might be. The advantage that dentistry has over the other two methods is that human teeth are virtually indestructible.  Most all petroleum based fires will not burn enamel, the hardened outer covering of our teeth. The dental restorations are equally as durable and will withstand all environmental decomposition.

Forensic dentistry has been used to confirm identity of some rather notorious individuals. Back in 1998, I was consulted by the state medical examiner’s office to confirm a dental ID on James Earl Ray, the confessed killer of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Even though he died of hepatitis while in prison, and his face was readily identifiable, our medical examiner wanted certainty. He remembered the controversy with Lee Harvey Oswald’s body just eighteen years after JFK’s assassination. Naysayers claimed conspiracy, so forensic dentistry reconfirmed his identity following an exhumation in Dallas.

What case is the most bizarre mystery I’ve worked? It spanned over a decade and resulted from the murder of a John Doe whose body was placed in a car, burned beyond recognition, while the killer staged his own death.  When his plot was later foiled, it took years to determine the victim’s identity. It was the first time in Tennessee courts of law where a capital murder hearing took place and no one in the courtroom had any idea who the victim was! Think about that for a minute!! This mysterious convoluted storyline gave birth to my first forensic novel, based on this case entitled ‘Walk of Death’.

Why do you do this? I get that question a lot. ‘I don’t see how you stand being around all that stuff all the time!’ Not sure I have a really good answer. The grossness of the endeavor is without question, but that is something that you can overcome. You almost have to look at the project as if you were dissecting a frog in biology class. I don’t mean to trivialize death but by keeping it clinical, the process is more manageable.

Although it sounds somewhat like a cliché, the one redeeming factor in forensic identification is the fact that we are able to finally bring closure to the families whose lives have already been turned upside down from the disappearance of their loved one. The confirmation that truly the ‘search is over’ is somehow able to bring some measure of peace to those families, is an element that probably cannot be completely understood, unless you walked in their shoes. The peace, that’s what I’m after!

Dr. Mike Tabor has served as Chief Forensic Odontologist for The State of Tennessee Office of the Medical Examiner since 1983.  He is past President of the American Board of Forensic Odontology and Section Chair and Fellow for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, as well as past president of the Tennessee Board of Dental Examiners.

He assisted the NYC medical examiner’s office after the 911 event.

 

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Dr. Tabor is the author of his first forensic novel, “Walk of Death”, the story of a cold case murder involving forensic dental identification that took over a decade to solve. His second in the Chris Walsh series is entitled “Out of the Darkness”. Since entering the writing phase of his career, Tabor has become a member of the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the International Thriller Writers Association.

For more info on Dr. Tabor’s work, he can be reached at:

http://www.drmiketabor.com

 

 

Are Bite Marks Junk Science?

The forensic examination of bite marks left on victims, both alive and deceased, is being brought into question. If someone has an unusual tooth pattern and leaves bite marks on a victim, it seems logical that a match between the tooth pattern and the bite mark pattern would indicate that this person was the one who did the biting. And that just might be the case.

Bundy

 

The poster boy for serial killers, Ted Bundy, had an unusual dental pattern and was convicted in part on bite mark evidence. No doubt old Ted was guilty but was the bite mark evidence used against him reliable?

 

Bundy's Teeth

Bundy’s Teeth

 

It comes down to exactly how accurate these comparisons are?

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It mostly depends on the “quality and clarity” of the bite mark and the skill, experience, and attention to detail of the observer. The key being that it varies from case to case and from examiner to examiner. Forensic science doesn’t like such unpredictable variability. In general, such variability means that either the technique is not useful or accurate, or the protocols for making the comparison are inexact. Time will tell, but a couple of upcoming court rulings could derail the entire process. We shall see.

AZ Daily Star

The Daily

 

 

Guest Blogger: Forensic Dentist Stanley Woods-Frankel

Forensic Dentistry
Forensic dentistry is not a new science, since it has been around  since the civil war and refined during the late 1800s. Dentists helped identify bodies found after huge fires had claimed many unrecognizable victims, such as the Chicago fire, the shirt-waist fire in lower Manhattan, and the major conflagration under the tents of a Paris outdoor fair. A burst dam in the Rocky Mountains that killed over 500 people who lived in the valley below should also be included. In modern times forensics was a major factor in airline crashes, and of course 9/11.

The method that most Forensic dentists use now is to chart the mouths of victims who were too ravaged to be recognizable or have enough skin on their hands to have fingerprints. The jaws should be worked open enough so that the dentist could chart the mouth, and that X-ray films could be placed next to the teeth and a full series of X-rays could be taken. All abnormalities should be noted, as well as what teeth are missing, what fillings are present, what teeth have been replaced by either fixed, or removable appliances,and  which teeth  have had root canal treatment, or implants.

 

Once this process has been completed, the dentist or their assistant takes a history to find out what people might have been present at the occurrence, and then contact the various dental practitioners who might have worked on them, and request a copy of their records. If a match is not close enough for a definite comparison it can be confirmed with further DNA Testing.

If none of this is possible NCIS has to be contacted which would list all the people who have been declared missing, and many times the dentist can find a match.

If none of the above works, after a certified time in cold storage, the remains are buried in Potters Field which is a small island off City Island  by convicts from Rikers Island, If necessary the bodies can be exhumed at a later date.

In my first novel, False Impressions, which is due out on August 1st, the main character, the irreverent Forensic Dentist,  Steve Landau, performs all these duties in a much more humorous, but dramatic fashion, and could be an enjoyable, as well as educational way to get your facts. Dr. Stanley Woods-Frankel can be contacted via his web site:

http://www.writingdocfrankelswoods.com

 
 

New Green River Killer Victim?

One of the most notorious and frightening serial killers in history was known as The Green River Killer, a moniker derived from his dumping his victims, mostly prostitutes, along the Green River near Seattle, Washington. Between 1982 and 1991, nearly 50 murders were attributed to the killer. The task force assigned to the cases developed a long suspect list but had no conclusive evidence that implicated any of the men.

One of the intriguing things about this case is that it parallels the advances in DNA technology and is proof positive that if DNA samples are properly collected and stored, they can remain useful for decades.

On April 8, 1987, police executed a search warrant on the premises of one of the suspects, Gary Ridgeway. After obtaining evidence items from his house they requested that he undergo a polygraph, but Ridgeway refused. They then asked for a saliva sample and Ridgeway complied by biting on a small, square surgical gauze.

Unfortunately, the semen samples taken from some of the victims were too small for the then available testing procedures. Using them would have consumed the entire sample, and if no match was found, there would be no crime scene material remaining if another suspect was later identified. So, the samples, as well as Ridgeway’s saliva, were stored.

In the mid-1990s, DNA testing made a quantum leap when the combination of STR and PCR analysis appeared. This new technique allowed for testing very small samples and by 2001 it had become a proven and widely available technique.

In that year, the lab tested Ridgeway’s saliva sample, obtained in 1987, with semen samples taken from Opal Mills, Marcia Chapman, and Carol Christensen, all killed in 1982 or 1983. Using the new PCR/STR technique, the samples were amplified and compared. A match was made. Gary Ridgeway was arrested and charged with four of the Green River killings. The case took a dramatic and controversial turn on November 5, 2003, when Ridgeway pleaded guilty to 48 murders in exchange for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, thus sparing himself a possible death sentence. Many involved in the case felt that Ridgeway’s victim list was much longer.

Now a new victim might have turned up. A skull was found in a ravine near Auburn, 25 miles south of Seattle, an area where the remains of Marie Malvar, another Ridgeway victim, were also found. Dental records revealed the skull was that of Rebecca Marrero who disappeared in 1982. Many involved in the case felt that Marrero was probably a victim of The Green River Killer, but Ridgeway could never supply enough information to prove that one way or the other.

Since Rebecca Marrero was not included in the original plea bargain, will we see Ridgeway charged and tried for her murder? Could he get the death penalty he avoided in 2003 after all? One can hope. We’ll see.

 

Tooth C-14 and the Age of a Corpse

Identifying unknown corpses is one of the most difficult things that the forensic pathologist and the forensic anthropologist must do. This is particularly true in situations of mass disaster where there are so many bodies to deal with or in circumstances where the body is severely decayed and there is little left to deal with but bones. The size, the sex, and the age of the skeletal remains narrow the possible identities. If the skeleton is intact, the size and the sex of the victim is usually easily ascertained but the exact age of the person is more difficult.

If the remains are those of a child it is usually easier since the development of the bones and teeth follow a pattern that is recognizable and more or less predictable. But once someone reaches adulthood this becomes more problematic. The teeth are often the best bet but once the wisdom teeth have completely erupted it is difficult to ascertain age. Hard to distinguish the skeletal remains of a 20 year old from a 35 year old.

Enter carbon-14. Carbon-14 is the radioactive isotope of carbon and is present in the residual of all organic materials. It has not been a useful forensic tool simply because it is too blunt and can only narrow down the age of the carbonaceous material to a century or so. So it is very good for determining if something is 500 years old or 5000 years old but not much help with a more recently deceased unidentified corpse.

A new technique has appeared that shows promise. A Swedish research team has begun looking at carbon 14 in tooth enamel and have found that it is highly accurate in determining the year of birth in anyone under 50 or 60 years of age. This technique uses the carbon-14 that was released into the atmosphere during the nuclear testing that was so common during the 1950s and 1960s. It’ll be interesting to follow this new technique and see if it really pans out to be as useful as hoped.

 

Dental X-Rays and Age Determination

I got a heads up about this interesting case from my friend Julie Kramer.

It seems that Mahdi Ali will have to visit the dentist and get some x-rays done. Not because he has any dental problems but because he is accused of killing three men during a Minneapolis convenience store robbery this past January. He and his friend Ahmed Ali apparently entered the Seward Market one evening, guns in hand. Mahdi forced the two men there to lie on the floor, all this taking place in front of the store’s security camera. While his friend was near the rear of the store attempting to rob someone else, Mahdi shot the two men and a third man who walked in the door. He is now charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

His defense attorneys claim that Mahdi Ali was only 15 at the time of the shooting and not 16 as was previously documented. They state that he was born on August 25, 1995 in Kenya and that this would’ve made him only 15 at the time to the shootings. This is critical since if he were only 15 he will be tried as a juvenile, but if he was 16, he will be tried as an adult and if convicted will be subject to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Big stakes.

So Mahdi will trot off to the dentist for dental x-rays to help determine his age. But there are a few problems with this. Yes both our deciduous (temporary or juvenile) teeth and our permanent teeth do tend to develop in a known and fairly predictable pattern. Our various types of teeth appear at certain ages and are lost as permanent teeth develop on their own timeline. Taking dental x-rays in this teenage group can often help determine the age of the person. Here’s the rub — it’s not all that accurate.

If you just look at the age at which the eruption of wisdom teeth occurs, it can vary by as much as five years. Some people get their wisdom teeth early and others see them late. We’re all different. In this case we’re looking at only a few months that would straddle Mahdi’s 15th and 16th years. It will be interesting to see what the experts say in this case and how accurate they will attempt to be. The bottom line is that determining whether someone’s age is 15 years and 10 months versus 16 years and three months is almost impossible. Stay tuned.

 
 

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