Netflix Series 'The Innocence Files' Has Us Wondering If Bite Mark Analysis Is Legit or a Junk Science

There are a handful of controversial practices in forensics, but one leads ongoing conversations of questionable validity. Bite mark analysis has long been used to convict apparent criminals of aggressive crimes, but some professionals think it's time to retire the practice.

The Innocence Files, a new documentary series that focuses on wrongful convictions organization The Innocence Project, features questions about the technology in its opening episode. The series, which premiered on Netflix Wednesday, dives into the ongoing battle to exonerate those who have been wrongfully convicted and shines a light on some of the criminal justice practices many advocates campaign to cancel.

While the series notes a list of forensic practices that some deem unfit—like evidence from hair strands, shoe prints and tire marks—bite marks lead the conversation. The still-used practice compares the pattern of a perpetrator's teeth with markings on a victim's body. Usually, these are bruise marks or wounds left with so much force, odontologists can see the smaller, unique details of a criminal's teeth.

Episode one, titled "The Evidence: Indeed and Without Doubt" tells the story of Levon Brooks who spent 16 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. He was accused of killing a three-year-old child, Courtney Smith, on September 17, 1990. One giant piece of evidence that convicted Brooks is examined: an apparent bite mark on Courtney's wrist.

Kennedy Brewer
Kennedy Brewer was wrongfully convinced and sentenced to death for a child murder he didn't commit. Netflix

After Brooks was convicted, a similar crime occurred. In 1992, another 3-year-old girl was murdered. Prosecutors claimed it was a copycat crime, and another man, Kennedy Brewer, was convicted and sentenced to death. He, too, maintained his innocence.

Both men were convicted with bite mark analysis presented by Dr. Michael West. In Brewer's case, West claimed in legal paperwork, that the bite marks were "indeed and without doubt."

West spoke in the documentary series about the bite mark technology. A past interview played showed him claiming bite marks are "better than fingerprints" as they seem to solidify there was a violent exchange between two individuals.

His own odontology idol, though, slams West's testing in both cases. Dr. Richard Souviron claimed West was "110 percent wrong" in Brewer's case. "None of those bites were bite marks," he said in The Innocence Files. "They weren't bite marks because in every one of the 19 cases, only the upper teeth marked, according to him. There's no such thing as a bite mark with only the upper teeth. Maybe one time. Maybe. I'll give you one."

The practice is seen as controversial by many because of the wrongful convictions its procured. Last week, a Georgia inmate who served 16 years behind bars was released. Sheila Denton was convicted for a 2004 murder she didn't commit, solely on bite mark analysis, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Each wrongful conviction case serves as another argument against the practice. Google the concept and you'll find a list of opinion articles claiming bite marks shouldn't be considered evidence in American courts. With a track record of wrongful convictions, it's apparent that many think the practice is flawed, and shouldn't be presented in a courtroom. Now, many outsiders consider it junk science.

But bite marks as evidence have been used in some giant cases, most notoriously in the conviction of serial killer Ted Bundy. The apparent pattern of his teeth on victim Lisa Levy contributed to one of his three murder convictions.

Bite mark analysis is a rather new practice. it's a legal and permissible forensic study. The American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO) still says bite mark analysis is valid.

Their website lists a series of guidelines and practices required to uphold the standards of forensic dentistry. You can read them here.

Newsweek reached out to the ABFO to inquire about the controversy surrounding bite marks as evidence, but they did not respond.

The future of bite mark analysis seems uncertain, given the loud voices that strongly oppose it. Still, it's allowed as evidence in American courts. How reliable it is apparently comes down to individual experts—some of who do still think it's a perfect way to present the presence of violence.