In today’s post, we will veer a bit off the beaten path, so to speak, and discuss an important dental specialty; forensic dentistry. The official term for the use of dentistry in criminal cases and post mortem identification is forensic odontology. These specialists are rarely recognized but play a fundamental role in crime and disaster investigations.
Dental X-rays, dentures, and bite marks are all used to provide clues about the victim’s identity and/or the manner of death. A person’s teeth are as unique as fingerprints and can often sustain forces such as fire, explosions, submersion in water, and natural decay without being destroyed.
Identifying One Victim
Identifying a victim through dental records is aided immensely when authorities have narrowed down a group of suspected victims to just a few people (or, ideally, just one) and can consult the dentists who had treated them. When the identity is entirely unknown, a forensic dentist investigates other databases such as those maintained by the armed forces and prisons.3
“Dental identifications are so much quicker and so much less expensive than DNA.” -Dr. Mark Bernstein, dentist and forensic dental consultant1
Identifying Hundreds of Victims
While identifying one victim of a homicide or accident can be relatively uncomplicated, natural disasters, plane crashes, and other large-scale tragedies are exponentially more complicated.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Burkes, chief forensic dental consultant for the 9/11 attacks, over 140 dentists toiled to identify the fragments of remains that were recovered from the scene of the terrorist attacks. The identification effort was an inordinately painstaking and complicated operation. First, the dentists were assigned to one of four teams. The Go Team gathered evidence from the scene, the Antemortem Team analyzed existing dental records of suspected victims, the Postmortem Team X-rayed the recovered dental evidence, and the Comparison Team compared the X-rays of the remains of unknown bodies to the records of missing people presumed to have been at the scene.2
“Dentistry fulfills one of its most important social, moral, and professional obligations by applying its unique knowledge and expertise to the task of identifying countless persons who are tragic victims of fires, catastrophes, disasters, and homicides.”3
1Ashley Hayes, “How authorities identify a burned body,” CNN, February 13, 2013, http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/13/health/burned-body-id/, accessed February 20, 2017
2James Berry, Clayton Luz, Arlene Furlong, Craig Palmer, “Forensic Dentistry: Identifying the Victims of 9/11” Dental Practice Management, December 1, 2001,http://www.oralhealthgroup.com/features/forensic-dentistry-identifying-the-victims-of-9-11/, accessed February 20, 2017
3Dr. Vincent Funaro, “Charts, Radiographs, Study Models: A Forensic Trilogy, January 1, 2006, Dentistry Today, http://www.dentistrytoday.com/forensic-dentistry/1159-, accessed February 20, 2017