Forensic Odontology: Applications and Limitations

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  4. Forensic Odontology: Applications and Limitations

Forensic Odontology: Applications and Limitations

  1. Home
  2. Dental Articles
  3. General Dentistry Articles
  4. Forensic Odontology: Applications and Limitations
Patient Visiting Odontology - Gisborne Dental House

Odontology is all about teeth. It is the application of dental studies and understanding to identify bite marks and dental remains. Those who studied and continue to study this branch of science have extensive knowledge of development, structure and abnormalities of the teeth. They are called in as professionals when a person cannot be identified through normal means, in the hopes of getting identified through their dental records.

The first documented use of odontology was in 66 AD at the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius and his wife Agrippina when the latter had ordered a potential rival, Lollia Pauline, be killed because of jealousy. She demanded the head be brought back and verified the identity through her rival’s teeth marks.

Teeth identification is generally used when trying to identify a person through other means fails. They are usually called by authorities for body identification for a badly burned body or when the deceased have been bloated beyond recognition in a watery grave. They are also called in sometimes to solve crimes involving bite marks. Like the case involving Ted Bundy where teeth marks on his victim were pivotal in his conviction without which would have made a guilty conviction impossible.

Modern accidents, disasters and accidents have utilised forensic odontology to match names to faces of the deceased. This had helped immensely after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. A massive disaster like this where bodies are unrecognisable and on top of one another, the burden of determining the identities of those that perished are up to the professionals and scientists. They include experts in DNA determination and forensic odontologists who are tasked with the comprehensive job of giving names to the departed.

A forensic odontologist is a breed of dentist, who instead of helping people have brighter smiles, delivers closure to victims and their families. Most disasters aside from the devastation and unexpectedness of it is dread of not knowing who perished. For missing loved ones, the finality does not sink in until the missing is written up as deceased.

In a multitude of bodies waiting to be identified from serious disasters, medical experts are called in to not only sort through the catastrophic why’s and how’s but also a team to determine steps for victim identification. Because of the unique characteristics of teeth being the hardest substance of the body, it is the most likely to remain intact.

Using teeth as a starting point, it can eliminate certain age groups and narrow down the list. With due diligence and if records are well kept then finding who that set of teeth belongs to is just a matter of time. Why teeth? Teeth are really hard substances and are usually well protected even at times of disasters. In fact, teeth can withstand even centuries, even thousands of years as the case with the Tabun man. On the primary basis that none are alike, dental features like teeth shapes and sizes, wear patterns, whether they had work done, crowding and even the colour of the tooth tells a forensic odontologist minute details about the age, race and even habits of an individual.

Limitations as Evidence

After excluding facial identification and fingerprint scanning, dental records and DNA are the only things left that can properly identify and positively point who have perished, to be declared legally deceased. It is another matter to prosecute using dental impressions and bite marks. Although dental evidence has been used longer than fingerprints, the fact that it changes naturally over time as opposed to fingerprints that remain the same unless purposely altered.

As it is not an exact science, it cannot be used as stand alone evidence merely in support of other, more solid evidence and expert analysis. There have been too many previous problems in the convictions of these cases that there seriously needs to be more process and procedures to make certain that the results are solid and can hold up under intense scrutiny. And under no circumstances should it put an innocent man behind bars.


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The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional personal diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a dental or medical condition. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read or seen on the Site.

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