Bite mark evidence used in dozens of convictions now considered ‘junk science’ by some
At least 30 people incarcerated have been exonerated or had cases dismissed
Rome, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Judy Carnes remembers making the call like it was yesterday. She was trying to reach her mother on May 22, 1980, but a police officer picked up the phone instead.
“I asked him if someone was dead there. And he said, ‘Yes.’ So, I knew it was Grace,” said Carnes.
The officer was talking about 75-year-old Grace Perry, found dead inside her Rome, Georgia home. Carnes’ mother, Edith Polston, lived at the same house. The two were cousins, but Carnes said Perry was more like a mother to her.
Carnes said she knew it was Perry who died, and not her mother, because the officer told her Polston was recovering at a hospital after surviving an assault.
According to police, someone raped and murdered Perry with the handle of a yard rake. Polston never saw her attacker’s face.
“Had Momma not escaped, I can’t imagine what her death would have been like,” Carnes said.
The next day, an officer escorted Carnes into the house to retrieve her mother’s clothes. Blood was everywhere, “all over the bed, all over the floor, against the walls,” Carnes said.
Police immediately arrested 19-year-old James Rogers, who lived next door. Police found him trying to climb the fence behind Perry’s home.
According to the original police report, Rogers admitted to the crime. “On the way to the Police Station, the suspect started screaming, ‘I killed her, I know what I done,” wrote the officer.
Detectives stopped short of calling it a confession.
It wasn’t Rogers’ first run-in with law enforcement. Police arrested him multiple times in the past, for charges involving theft, disorderly conduct and burglary.
During the investigation into Perry’s death, detectives noticed an injury on Rogers’ forearm they believed resembled a bitemark.
At the trial, renowned forensic dentist Dr. Richard Souviron testified with full certainty the murder victim’s teeth matched the bite mark found on Rogers. Prosecutors reminded the jury that Dr. Souviron had just helped convict serial killer Ted Bundy, the first nationally televised criminal trial in the U.S.
It didn’t take long for the jury to find Rogers guilty, sentencing him to death in 1985. “An outrageously vile, horrible and inhumane murder,” wrote the jury foreperson, according to the verdict sheet.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Grace bit him,” said Carnes.
Nearly four decades later, Rogers is still alive. This past August, his lawyers argued before Floyd County Superior Court Judge Bryan Johnson that Rogers deserved a new trial after discovering new evidence.
The evidence centers on the alleged bite mark found on Rogers. The same forensic dentist who said Perry bit Rogers, now believes he got it wrong.
“I no longer believe - as I testified at Mr. Rogers’s trial - that Grace Perry’s teeth, to the exclusion of all others, inflicted the injury on Mr. Rogers forearm,” said Dr. Souviron in a 2020 affidavit.
Chris Fabricant with The Innocence Project is one of Rogers’ attorneys. He believes the jury convicted Rogers based on Souviron’s original testimony.
“[Souviron], who’s been made world famous by the Ted Bundy trial, a known superstar in the forensic field ... you’re never going to question an expert like that,” Fabricant said. “We cannot execute somebody that we know that the evidence that was used at trial has been entirely discredited.”
This past October, the federal government weighed in on bite mark evidence for the first time. After a multi-year study, the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a scathing report critical of the reliability of bite mark analysis.
According to a draft summary of the report, “forensic bite mark analysis lacks a sufficient scientific foundation.” The authors of the report further explained that human skin is not a reliable surface to analyze because it changes over time depending on swelling, healing and skin elasticity.
Since 2005, more than 30 people incarcerated for bite mark evidence have been exonerated or had their indictments dismissed, according to The Innocence Project and The National Registry of Exonerations. One of them includes Shelia Denton, who was sentenced to life in prison for a 2004 murder in Waycross, Georgia.
Two years ago, Ware County Superior Court Judge Dwayne Gillis ruled the bite mark evidence used to convict Denton was unreliable and it should “never serve as a basis for a conviction.” Denton said she spent nearly two decades in prison for a crime she did not commit.
“I was mad because I missed almost 17 years of my life locked up without my family,” said Denton in an interview with InvestigateTV this past summer. Denton was released from prison in April 2020 and granted a new trial date. Her attorneys said they have repeatedly reached out to the DA’s office on any future retrial plans but have received no response.
A new book published this year called “Junk Science” highlights a long list of flawed forensics used by district attorneys across the country to help land guilty verdicts they did not prove.
The book was written by Fabricant, one of Rogers’ attorneys, and is designed to break down the unreliability of burn mark, shoe print and comparative bullet lead analysis, among others, as well as the experts who made money giving bogus testimony in front of juries.
Fabricant believes Rogers is among those wrongfully imprisoned.
“What he really needs is a fair trial, one where there is no cheating with junk science and a fair judication of the facts of the case,” Fabricant said.
For decades, The American Board of Forensic Odontology, the organization that accredits forensic dentists, pushed back against skeptics who disagreed with its science. All that changed when Dr. Adam Freeman became its president in 2015.
Shortly after he took over the board, Freeman asked his fellow forensic dentists to participate in a study to compare dozens of bite marks with dental impressions. The study included 38 forensic dentists who evaluated 100 cases.
The results shocked Freeman: the highly trained experts were unable to agree on whether the bite marks matched the dental impressions, and some couldn’t confirm the samples were bite marks at all.
Freeman resigned from the organization shortly after, concerned with the reliability of the science and the board’s decision not to conduct further studies on the issue.
“I drank that Kool-Aid. I wanted to become board certified. That was going to be like the pinnacle of my career,” Freeman said. “And at the end of today, it’s just smoke and mirrors.”
In his opinion, the American Board of Forensic Odontology is responsible for putting innocent people behind bars.
“It’s just about telling the truth. There’s innocent people in jail convicted on this junk science. And bite marks are junk science. They are the epitome of junk science,” he said.
This past May, Freeman testified on behalf of Rogers’ defense team. He told Judge Johnson no forensic dentist today would be able to testify with full certainty that Perry bit Rogers. Freeman was not paid for providing his testimony.
Floyd County District Attorney Leigh Patterson declined to be interviewed for this story.
“It is a pending case and we do not comment on pending cases,” Patterson said in an email to InvestigateTV.
During the August hearing, Floyd County Assistant District Attorney Natalee Staats argued Rogers didn’t deserve a new trial because there was ample evidence, unrelated to the bite mark testimony, that proved his guilt.
“There were multiple people who heard Mr. Rogers say the following things, ‘I killed her, I’m a murderer. Momma, they got me, I’m gone this time. I killed her, and there’s nothing you can do about it,’” Staats said in court.
Rogers’ attorneys disagree, pointing to their client claiming his innocence multiple times shortly after his arrest and for years after.
They also believe the district attorney at the time, Stephen Lanier, pushed the bite mark testimony at trial because there was no physical evidence or eyewitnesses to the crime.
“Where would we be without … Dr. Souviron?” Lanier said in his closing statement to the jury in 1985. “[Grace Perry’s] teeth do talk, and she’s telling you right now that she bit [James Rogers]. That’s the only verdict you can give.”
“And with that argument, the prosecution sealed Mr. Rogers’ fate. There was no way a jury was going to acquit him when they learned that the teeth were talking,” said Mark Loudon-Brown during the August hearing. Loudon-Brown is an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, and also part of Rogers’ defense team.
Where Carnes sits, the change in science isn’t enough to convince her the jury got it wrong.
“Everything improves over time. That’s what they had to work with way back then, but does everyone get a new trial because of it?” Carnes said. “They know they’re guilty. They do not want anyone left on death row and they will keep doing these until death row is emptied.”
The case is now in Judge Johnson’s hands, who will determine whether Rogers will get a new trial. There is no timeline for that decision.
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