Identity Unknown: Forensic Science and Crime

Forensic identification is a branch of forensic science that has played an increasingly significant role in crime solving over the past three decades. A body whose identity cannot be determined by next of kin is often confirmed by fingerprint, DNA, or dental records comparison. Presumptive identifications can result in false or incorrect conclusions, further compounding the tragedy of an already traumatic situation.Identity Unknown: Forensic Science and CrimeThere are advantages and disadvantages to each of the three main methods of identification. Fingerprints, long thought to be unquestionably accurate, are lost quickly, especially as human tissue decomposes. DNA, now the “gold standard” in identity determination, is often expensive and time-consuming. Dental records comparison has one advantage over DNA and fingerprint study. Human teeth are virtually indestructible, even in petroleum-based fires. They are not affected by heat, moisture, or time, all of which are lost in fingerprint and DNA comparison.

The reliability of all three methods is based upon the assumption that you have examinable material from a known individual that is compared to the evidence discovered on the body of the decedent. If antemortem (before death) dental records (clinical notes, chartings, and radiographs) of a missing person can be obtained, the comparison of its unique patterns with the records of the unknown body (postmortem) is extremely accurate. The mathematical probability of any two persons having the exact records is greater than the total number of people who ever lived on the planet.

In rape, child abuse, and murder cases, the perpetrator often will bite his victim, leaving a unique pattern in the skin. In many cases, these human bite marks are useful in forming a subjective interpretation in measuring the likelihood that an attacker’s teeth did or did not leave the patterned injury found on the victim.

In the late 1970s case of State of Florida vs. Ted Bundy, bite mark evidence was the most important clue linking Bundy to one of his victims. Media coverage propelled its exposure to heights that publicized this aspect of forensic investigation to another plateau. CBS made a highly successful movie on Bundy’s life, murders, conviction, and execution. The world had just given birth to the CSI generation. Forensics sizzle now.

Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, dental identification was the chief contributing aspect of forensic science that allowed approximately 1000 individuals of the nearly 3000 who died to be identified. I was involved in that effort as a volunteer forensic odontologist a month after the towers collapsed. Since victims from more than eighty countries perished that day, compiling the dental radiographs and clinical records was an enormous task and took months to accomplish.

I have served as Chief Forensic Odontologist for the Tennessee State Medical Examiner’s Office since 1983. Every dental identification case has a story behind it. Most are routine. Some are bizarre. A few are beyond human imagination. I have kept a journal over the last thirty years of the most unusual cases. Perhaps someday, I thought, I might write about them. In late 2010, we solved a cold case murder that had been on the books for thirteen years. I had totally given up on solving it. The storyline of this case was surreal. Through the persistence of two cold case detectives from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, we finally put a name with that face through a seldom used forensic dental science procedure. This was it; this story had to be told. My new novel, Walk of Death, and its protagonist, Dr. Chris Walsh, had just been born!

As the plot begins, two meth heads concoct an ill-planned murder scheme to fake their own deaths. You will get to know these killers, their motives, and the steps they took to evade the law. You will follow the victim, Cody Britton, on his journey from Albuquerque to Nashville in his search of a country music career.

My involvement in the case begins when Cody’s identity surfaces as another part of the mystery. The body is exhumed for re-identification. The storyline’s twists and turns seem so bizarre that readers will be left shaking their heads. We knew who it wasn’t, but finding out exactly who it was, well, that was a different story.

I testified at the preliminary hearing, which had peculiarities of its own. The DA and the public defender, usually on opposite sides of the table, both doubted their ability to prosecute or defend the case. For perhaps the first time in courts of law, no one in the courtroom knew the victim’s true identity. How could a jury hear the facts of a murder without a name?

As the years passed, I became certain the case would never be solved. We compared records of missing persons from all over the world. All with the same results. Negative match. Negative match. There was no answer in sight.

After more than a decade, we finally got a hit. Thanks to a trailer that ran on “America’s Most Wanted,” our case suddenly began to turn warm. In the storyline, I’ve tried to show the reader how the science of forensic dental identification really works and the vital role it played in bringing these killers to justice.

The book is considered “faction,” a new buzzword in the literary community meaning fiction based on true case files. Of course, all names and cities have been changed throughout. A few characters have been created, and a couple have been eliminated in attempt to keep the storyline moving smoothly for the readers. For much of this novel, however, the truth remains stranger than fiction!

The actual writing process of this first project has been far more difficult and demanding than I ever dreamed it would be, but it has truly been a labor of love. A few folks have begun to ask about Dr. Chris Walsh, the protagonist in Walk of Death. Is he going to return? The answer is yes. I have Walsh being hired by the Arkansas State Police to provide expert witness testimony in a human bite mark murder case, opposing a colleague whose opinion is 180 degrees different from Walsh’s. It’s a rehash of another of the extraordinary storylines that I’ve run across in the last three decades. It’s more of a “whodunit” than Walk of Death’s characterization as a “who is it.” With the working title of Out of Darkness, this book of faction is scheduled to be released in early 2014.

Dr. Mike Tabor
 has served as Chief Forensic Odontologist for The State of Tennessee Office of the Medical Examiner since 1983. He is a Fellow and past Section Chairman of the American Academy of Forensic Science. He served as president of the Tennessee Board of Dentistry under three different governors. He holds the Mastership Award of the Academy of General Dentistry and is a member of the American Dental Association. In 2004, his peers elected him as the 2004 Tennessee AGD ‘Dentist of the Year.’ He is past president and member of the American Board of Forensic Odontology’s Board of Directors, and active member of the American Society of Forensic Odontology. Dr. Tabor assisted the New York Medical Examiner’s office in 2001 on two different occasions in the identification of the victims of the World Trade Center terrorist attack.

Walk of Death is his first novel.