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Forensic Dentistry

IDA's role

IDA encourages education and good practice in forensic odontology

Indian Dental Association (IDA) encourages education and good practice in forensic odontology and recognizes, reviews performance and mentors member practitioners in forensic odontology. Forensic dentistry or forensic odontology involves dentists’ participation in assisting legal and criminal issues. Each dental professional has a responsibility to understand the forensic involvements associated. The practicing dentists and the dental students should be made aware of the available technologies and its use in forensic dentistry.Knowledge of forensic dentistry requires encompassing of number of disciplines, since the dental records obtained can identify an individual or afford the information needed by the authorities to establish identification of the case.

These cases are handled by a Forensic Odontologist at the crime scene, who investigates and interprets the dental evidence, which will be then presented in the interest of justice. A forensic Odontologist needs to have an interest in the various law enforcement procedures to successfully work as a professional. Apart from this, working knowledge in the fields of photography, forensic pathology, radiology, and physical anthropology is just as vital.

Forensic identification by its nature is a multidisciplinary team effort relying on positive identification methodologies as well as presumption or exclusionary methodologies. Typically, this effort involves the cooperation & coordination of law enforcement officials, forensic pathologists, forensic odontologists, forensic anthropathologists, serologists, criminalistics & other specialists as deemed necessary.

Indian Dental Association is now taking steps to introduce the dental community to the new and exciting field of Forensic Odontology as forensics is increasingly coming into play in cases in India.

Who is a forensic odontologist and What is the scope of their work?

Forensic odontology is a branch of forensic medicine and, in the interests of justice, deals with the proper examination, handling and presentation of dental evidence in a court of law. Keiser-Neilson defined forensic dentistry as “that branch of forensic dentistry that in the interest of justice deals with the proper handling and examination of dental evidence and the proper evaluation and presentation of dental findings ”. The work of a forensic odontologist covers:

  • Identification of unknown human remains through dental records and assisting at the scene of a mass disaster
  • Age estimations of both living and deceased persons including neo-natal remains
  • Identification in mass fatalities
  • Analysis of bite marks found on victims of attack
  • Identification of bite marks in other substances such as wood, leather and foodstuffs
  • Analysis of weapon marks using the principles of bite mark analysis
  • Assessment of cases of abuse (such as child, spousal or elder abuse)
  • Presentation of bite and weapon mark evidence in court as an expert witness
  • Assistance in building up a picture of lifestyle and diet at an archeological site.

The unique nature of the dental anatomy and the custom restorations ensure accuracy when the techniques are appropriately employed. The dental tissues are often preserved even if the deceased person is skeletonized, decomposed, burnt, or dismembered. Various methods have been developed to determine age, sex, and ethnicity of the person, using dental tissues. Data collection methods and supplementary technologies used in forensic dental identification have undergone significant advancements.

Importance of forensics in India

Bite mark analysis - Forensics is increasingly coming into play in cases such as sexual assaults, where the victim has bite marks on the body. It came to the fore following the Delhi gangrape investigation in 2012-2013, when the investigators sought to understand the nature of the marks left on the young physiotherapy student’s body. Even in the Ahmednagar rape case – where the victim’s body bore “multiple bite marks in the same spot” forensic evidence was used in court during a trial.

In the United States, the science of bite-marks has come under scrutiny for playing a role in convicting people who were later exonerated through DNA evidence. Dentists submit reports in good faith after careful analysis. A dental report is one – and not the only – piece of corroborating evidence, which should or can determine a verdict. Bite marks aren't like fingerprints and DNA, they can't tell you 100 percent who the biter was. Critics feel that bite-mark analysis should be used only to eliminate, not to identify, a suspect. It's important to clarify that bite marks can't be the only thing linking the suspect to the crime.

In India, of more immediate concern is how such evidence is collected by the police as investigators are often unsure how to deal with cases involving bite marks. Simply photographing these injuries is not enough: they have to be measured and detailed. In some scenarios, by the time the victim approaches the police, sensitive marks of this kind have been lost.

Age estimation - Cases related to age-estimation in young offenders – is crucial in India, since the law applies differently for those aged above 18 years and those below, and in certain kinds of offences – such as rape and murder – those between the ages of 16 and 18 can be treated as adults. Dental age estimation – which involves closely examining the growth of wisdom teeth and then taking a call based on it – is more reliable than skeletal age estimation. There is a margin of error for dental age estimation – a year either side – skeletal age estimation can yield a more significant margin of error, of even up to 10 years.

On occasions, forensic work also plays a role in civil cases – helping ascertain the age of athletes for age-bracketed sporting competitions, or to find out whether a person is indeed the age they claim to be for senior citizen benefits.

Dating human skulls - Eight years ago, rows upon rows of human skulls were found in Annigeri in Karnataka’s Dharwad district during an expansion of the area’s drainage system. As speculation about a possible genocide arose, forensic experts were roped in by the local authorities to make a decisive assessment of what had happened. After examining them in the lab and developing a statistical formula to understand the results, it was concluded the skulls belonged to both men and women. Eventually, the team deduced that the 600-plus skulls dated back to 1790, when a famine in the area resulted in mass deaths.

Shortage of forensic experts in India

India faces an acute shortage of trained forensic experts and scientists in investigations. There is an acute shortage of qualified Forensic Odontology Experts, Scientists and Investigators in the India. Forensic science is an applied science having more than 27 sub-branches. It is important to note that forensic dentistry is not always applied in isolation and dentists are often part of wider teams. It is still a niche in a country where forensic science itself is yet to fully come of age. Forensic Experts are needed to reduce the number of cases entering the overloaded court system by assisting the decision-makers before a case reaches the court.

Forensic scientists handle various clues collected from crime scene and use latest and advanced techniques to convert these clues into evidences which are later produced in court for prosecutions of the criminals. As there is increase in the rate of organized crime the task of forensic scientists is becoming more tough, challenging and adventurous. There is also a need to expand awareness about the field, and with more dentists completing short courses and fellowships, some also have started pursuing forensics on the side.

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