Forensics is the application of science as it applies to the law, whether civil or criminal. Forensic dentistry, therefore, is the art and science of dentistry as it applies to the law.
“All dentists do some form of forensics without realizing it,” says Dr. Barry Lipton, a board-certified forensic odontologist and a faculty member at LECOM School of Dental Medicine, New York University and Florida Gulf Coast University.
He says, in dentistry, there are many examples of forensic science. With personal injury such as automobile accidents, dentists cooperate with lawyers and insurance companies. This is an example of forensic dentistry as it applies to civil litigation in a typical practice setting.
Here, Dr. Lipton explains the role of forensic dentistry in disasters as well as how dentists can become involved in this field.
How did you get involved in forensic dentistry?
I started taking courses in 1997. The first course I took was offered by the Florida Dental Association, and it discussed a dentist’s responsibility in a mass disaster — plane or car crashes and other events with mass casualties. [Then] I joined the American Society of Forensic Odontology, which is open to anyone interested in forensic dentistry, and the American Academy of Forensic Science, an organization for those active in forensics.
In the late 90s, I joined the federal mass disaster response team, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT). In 2004, I became board-certified as a forensic odontologist and have had a busy and fulfilling career ever since. I have done close to 100 felony cases involving dental evidence (bitemark cases and age estimations), and I’ve completed several hundred victim identification cases as the doctor of record. I’ve also testified about 65 times as a forensic dental expert in criminal court cases, which is quite unusual for a dentist. Forensic odontology is a distinguished field — only about 172 people have qualified for this field since 1975.
What is your favorite aspect of forensic dentistry?
When dealing with missing persons, it is gratifying to identify someone through dental records and the examination of the decedent. When you give a missing person back their identity, it allows the family to start grieving and find closure. It’s rewarding to give families that opportunity.
How is forensic dentistry different from a typical office setting?
There is a lot of field work involved, such as examining a victim at the morgue or a suspect in the county jail. As dentists, we are used to being in our offices, but when you find yourself in the courtroom, it is different from the usual setting.
What is the role of a forensic dentist in a mass disaster?
A mass disaster is one in which there are more fatalities than local resources can handle. DMORT responds to mass disasters when local resources are overwhelmed. In Florida, we have our own state team, FEMORS. The response team includes security, anthropologists, pathologists, odontologists, mortuary technicians, funeral directors and ancillary personnel who serve as resources for family members of the missing. There also is a team that collects medical and dental records as well as a postmortem team that examines the remains. Forensic odontologists work alongside these professionals to identify missing persons during mass disasters.
What are some mass disasters that you have been involved in?
The first mass disaster I was involved in was the World Trade Center. There, I did body identification and recovery. The second mass disaster was Hurricane Katrina. After these disasters, there were several others, including the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando a couple years ago.
When you are not involved in these disasters, what are you doing in your field?
I do a lot of consulting with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies dealing with missing persons. This involves reviewing dental records and completing the necessary dental forms that are entered into the FBI database. This database compares missing and unidentified dental records for similarities in decayed, missing and restored teeth. If there are potential matches, these records are then reviewed by a trained dentist. Most of my forensic consulting is related to dental evidence in crimes, usually bitemarks, on the victim or the assailant.
What has been one of the most interesting experiences of your career?
Historically, it would be my involvement in the recovery and identification of victims in the World Trade Center mass disaster.
I also have been involved in numerous investigations related to child abuse. Often in these cases, there are multiple suspects (mother, father, siblings and others). When that happens, you must be able to analyze, compare and render an opinion based on the evidence of the bitemark injury to a suspect’s dentition. In my career, there have been many instances in which I was able to include/exclude the likely suspect based on this comparison.
The rewarding part of my specialty is in the education and training of dentists, hygienists and dental assistants who have an interest in forensic dentistry and to see them succeed in this field.
Are there any misconceptions about forensic dentistry that you encounter?
Yes. When dealing with bitemark cases, there are some limitations concerning the degree of certainty linking a suspect to a bitemark injury. Unlike most forensic sciences (such as DNA, ballistics or fingerprints that have a database used for comparison of the forensic evidence), odontology does not have such a database. Teeth are dynamic, changing throughout our lifetimes, which makes having a database of everyone’s dentition impossible. Most cases have a closed population, or a few people, which limits the number of suspects to examine and allows for a higher degree of certainty in rendering an opinion. In an open population, with many more people, the degree of certainty in rendering an opinion is much more difficult.
My job is not to convict or exonerate anyone; that is up to a judge and jury. Following the standards and guidelines from the American Board of Forensic Odontology, my professional opinion is based on the evidence that I have examined and analyzed.
How can people become involved in forensic dentistry?
The best way to get involved is to look up the forensic dentist in your area. Most medical examiners have a forensic dentist that they call upon. Once you become a dentist, join the American Society of Forensic Odontology. There are classes [you can take] to get started. Also, look into joining your state’s mass disaster team. They are always looking for people who have an interest in the field and want to get involved.
~Elyse Hofer-Draper, University of Colorado ’20, ASDA Predental Advisory Committee Member