Why is Forensic Odontology Used?

Forensic odontology is the science and art of applying dental evidence to the law. This science is applied through expert testimony in court, and can take quite a few forms, including identification, bite mark analysis, and identification of abuse.

Bitemark evidence from trial of Arizona v KroneBitemark evidence from trial of Arizona v Krone.

Pertti Sainio, the Head of the Department of Oral Pathology at the University of Kuopio, emphasizes how much of a mix between art and science forensic odontology is, a sentiment that is echoed by international experts. Studies conducted by various research institutes, including the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO, the only accredited organization that provides certification for forensic dentists), have also concluded that it is not an exact science, due to ABFO-certified dental professionals being unable to agree on whether marks on bodies were indeed bite indentations.

If the validity of the science of forensic odontology is contested as much as it is, then why does it continue to be used? A surprising amount of dental evidence can be left behind, usually unintentionally, that can assist in tying suspects to crimes. However, experts agree that, unlike forensic practices such as fingerprinting, forensic odontology is not an exact science and must be accompanied by other substantial evidence in criminal cases. Despite this, the dental evidence left behind can be that key piece of missing information, such as a skin sample between a victim’s teeth. Additionally, forensic odontology can assist in identifying victims after cases of mass disaster, such as building collapses, earthquakes, or tsunamis, which is markedly different from applying dental evidence to criminal cases.