Forensic Odontology

Forensic Odonotlogy (dentistry) is that aspect of dental science, which interacts with the legal justice system. It covers a wide range of activities but particularly involves the study of teeth and bones.  Although examination of the teeth cannot generally be used to determine the cause of death, it is the most common method which is used for the identification of unknown human remains.

Teeth are coated in enamel, a durable substance which is the hardest substance within the body. Because of this resilience, teeth outlast tissues and organs as decomposition begins. In the event of a mass disaster such as a fire or explosion, the examination of the teeth and comparison to dental records is often the primary method used for identification. An individual’s teeth, their alignment, the presence of damage or filings and the mouth’s overall structure can help identify a person. An odontologist will use x-rays, dental casts, and even a photograph of the person’s smile to compare the remains to the suspected victim.

Odontology is still used more commonly than DNA fingerprinting in the identification of victims, as there are frequently good dental records kept of most individuals in a population. These can generally be accessed in the event of an accident or even a massed disaster and compared with the dentition of any unknown individual. Although the speed at which DNA analysis can be carried out has increased in recent years, and the cost has decreased, odontology has remained the preferred method as a cost effective relatively quick method for identification.

The examination of dentition can indicate other aspects of a victims profile. As there are regular changes which take place from the development of baby teeth to the emergence of the 32 adult teeth, this can be used to determine the age in unidentified victims.  Other environmental factors such as whether an individual is a smoker or not can be determined from examination of the teeth.

Another area which can fall under the work of the odontologist is the identification of bitemarks. These may involve bite marks items such as food which has been left behind at the scene of a crime or in crimes against a victim in issues relating to human abuse and neglect. Bite marks which have been left behind on human flesh are difficult to record as they will lead to bruising which will reflect the shape of the teeth, but they will not give a detailed impression. Generally such bitemarks are photographed so that the odontologist can refer back to them if a likely suspect is identified. In most courts of law, the evidence of a bitemark is more likely to be used to show that a suspect could not be responsible rather than providing irrefutable evidence of guilt. In the event that a bite mark is found on a victim, the use of a cotton wool swab to collect samples of saliva for DNA analysis is a much more useful technique for the positive identification of a suspect.

Occasionally a forensic odontologist may be involved in a case relating to animal attacks and may be required to identify the animal involved, although in such cases other experts who are more familiar with animal may be recruited to work on the investigation.

Odontologists are also involved in cases of dental malpractice and being an effective expert witness, both in the criminal, as well as civil trials.