State District Judge Dominique Collins ordered the release from prison of Steven Mark Chaney yesterday after he had served more than a quarter of a century behind bars. He was convicted of the 1987 murders of an East Dallas couple, John and Sally Sweet. Nine witnesses testified to support Chaney’s alibi. Yet he was convicted by bite-mark junk science.
This case — and widespread official recognition of the unreliability of this type of forensic evidence — should prompt new consideration of all cases in which bite-mark testimony contributed to the conviction.
Chaney’s release yesterday was supported by Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk, his New York based Innocence Project Attorney Julie Lesser, and the Dallas County Public Defender’s Office. They all recognize that Chaney did not receive a fair trial.
As reported in The Guardian, Chaney will remain free while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reviews the case. His attorneys believe he will be exonerated…
“Julie Less, exoneration attorney for the Dallas county public defender’s office, said: ‘We’re confident that when the reinvestigation is complete, the district attorney’s office will be in a position to formally agree that he is innocent of this crime.’”
In Chaney’s case, two forensic dentists said bite marks on one of the victims were his. Jim Hales, chief dental consultant for the Dallas County medical examiner’s office, testified that the odds of the marks coming from any other were “one in a million.” Dr. Hale has since said the science used has been discredited and has admitted that he exaggerated the strength of this evidence even by scientific standards of the day.
Chaney’s attorney, Julie Lesser of the New York based Innocence Project, also alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Defense attorneys never saw evidence that an expert had concluded there was no blood on the bottom of Chaney’s shoes as another expert testified at trial. DNA testing has since found no linking of Chaney to the crime.
Regarding bite-mark evidence, the Dallas Morning News reported yesterday:
“The American Academy of Forensic Sciences conducted a study last year of forensic odontologists and concluded that the analysts could not even accurately determine which marks were bite marks. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences published a report that concluded that there was insufficient scientific basis to conclusively match bite marks.”
The Dallas District Attorney’s Office provided an early model of a post-conviction review unit that has been productive in investigating claims of wrongful conviction. Its conviction integrity unit, created by former District Attorney Craig Watkins, has been continued by current District Attorney Susan Hawk.
Additionally, Texas lawmakers passed legislation in 2013 that allows courts to grant inmates new consideration if advancements in science undermine the evidence used to convict them. The Texas Forensic Science Commission is currently reviewing cases in which bite mark analysis contributed to the conviction. In the interest of justice, other states should follow suit.