Forensic dentistry is a branch of dentistry that collides with the legal system. It is defined as an investigational part of dentistry where professionals examine, evaluate, analyze and present dental evidence for recognition of human identity. Adding to that this field can be split into forensic odontology which is the study of prostheses, jaws, teeth, dental appliances and bite marks as an application of dentistry to the law. The other division is jurisprudence which is the philosophy or theory of law.
Dentistry has played a great role in human identification and that is because human teeth withstand wear, pressure and damage making them durable and hard-wearing. Moreover, dental dentitions can be taken as an individual’s fingerprint. And as they are more durable and recognizable than skeletal remaining after death, they offer much more help for professionals while identifying humans. In addition, if it is hard to identify the person from their teeth forensic dentistry helps in collecting information about the victimsuspect such as age, sex and social and economic factors that can be obtained from patterns of eruption, patterns of attrition, periodontal status, characteristics of the skeleton, diagnostic examination of blood serum and restorative material. Many different techniques and methods are used in forensic dentistry and identification. The most common of those methods are conservation and protection of jaw and dental remains, cast and impressions, making charts with before and after death information and comparing between them. In order to be specific while identifying investigators compare between the records and charts by using several comparison points which include teeth number and characteristic, malposition rotation and spacing of teeth, abnormalities of the form, function, tissue and bone of teeth (anomalies), appliances and restoration, dental caries, root canal treatment, fixtures, patterns of the bone, wearing of the tooth occlusion and erosion and lastly pathology. The process of identification happens very precisely and accurately in order to get results that are organized well with no slight errors and making the comparing process as smooth as possible. Firstly, the investigator or examiner starts by recording features and characteristics of each tooth after death and also records casts of teeth and radiographs. After that the start collecting before death records however in this process, they must be very careful and cautious since records and information vary in quality and how accurate they are. Another thing to be careful about is how radiographs are taken some take them from the lingual aspect others might take them from the front. And it is very important to know that not all identifications of teeth are taken by the Universal System. At the end professionals in this division of dentistry need to be well organized and carefully analyzed using methods that are systemic and consistent in order to get results with the lowest percentage of error.
Forensic dentistry is also used in civil litigation as it helps investigators and professionals determine if what people are saying is true. That can be demonstrated when a person has claims of dental care that is improper or caused damage or if food was incorporated with foreign material. Deception and claimed malpractice investigator will most likely get help from experts that will study radiographs and records and compare those using very precise techniques and methods with records and radiographs from dentists.
And as discussed before many techniques can be used in forensic dentistry but the most remarkable method which especially helped in cases of attack, assault, child abuse and homicides was bite marks. This is because bite marks can be severe and stay for a while leaving some characteristics of teeth that makes comparing bite marks on the victim to the suspect possible. Many techniques and methods are used to identify bite marks and compare them one of them is making a comparison between the tracings of the bite mark to the defendant’s or suspect’s pattern imprint tracing of the tooth. Then after getting a court order authorizing search, photographs from the suspect and dental casts are taken. Then recognizing and identifying the bite is done using ordered steps. These steps are: firstly, the dentist specialized in forensic dentistry should start with identifying if the bite mark is done by a human after that he should try to know what teeth were involved in the bite mark. Hyper erupted, tilted, rotated, missing and anomalous teeth are possibilities when trying to identify the bite mark. Moreover, when trying to identify bite marks the professional must be aware that the bite might be an animal bite or a mark by unknown objects or even a bite done by the victim himself. And even if the bite is one of those it is still a very helpful analysis for law enforcement agencies since they can connect the injuries to stuff owned by the suspect (it might be instruments or tools).
As much as forensic dentistry has helped in many small cases it has also helped in many large cases or disasters as it helps identify unidentified dead bodies that are found on the grounds of a disaster such as floods, air crashes, earthquakes and collapsing of structures. When any of those happen a team made up of medical and dental professionals are called for cooperation with a team chief that will help the team be more organized while approaching and recording all the unidentified bodies. The team chief will also be responsible for all the communications between the mass disaster medical/dental team and the radiology team, autopsy team and other many other teams. As mentioned before the process happens very smoothly and by being very organized. The team does that by getting separated into two per team and into an antemortem team and a postmortem team. However, an initial response to any disaster would be examining the scene and making sure that it is safe. Then comes the process which is done by one of the examiners looking and examining the bodies and specimens and the other doing and organizing all the chart work. After collecting all those information, a person from the dental team then checks all the outcomes of the examination. Postmortem records must be kept safe and separately from antemortem record that will be delivered to the team later. In order to succeed in the task, the dental examiner must be knowledgeable in dental anatomy knowing all the basics. And will only go back to books and notes for numbers. Adding to that it is important for the examiner to know that whatever is found on site could be an important key to human identification and nothing should be overlooked. Even if it is just a denture or a part of it or even an edentulous jaw those might be critical for identification. And that is because the jaw might contain dental casts, old fractions, metal, fractions or even trabecular bone that has a unique pattern. And lastly after all information of postmortem and antemortem has been collected. They are compared to each other and then results will be given. One more thing that is important for examiners to have knowledge about is forensic anthropology which is a part of physical anthropology that focuses on skeletal analysis. This will be very helpful for examiners when identifying victims.
And to make it more understandable there are several case studies that explain this topic. One of them is the case study about the tsunami that hit three countries in December 2004. The disaster killed 224,408 people. However, the way they treated the situation was great since they put a lot of effort in identifying and preserving dead bodies and they were able to identify 87% of the bodies. The key factors for the successful identification were that they preserved the bodies very well and also have recorded and photographed important information from each body to make it easier in the identification process. For the process they used all antemortem dental and regular records and compared them to whatever postmortem records they were able to get.
Lastly, forensic dentistry is not only important for identifying humans it is also important for whoever practices dentistry. And that is because it helps private practices in keeping and managing precise dental data and documentations that might be used in the future.
- Dental Anatomy Its Relevance to Dentistry (by Julian B. Woelfel and Rickne C. Scheid).
- Wheeler's Dental Anatomy, Physiology and Occlusion. (By STANLEY J. NELSON).
- PLOS medicine (https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.0030195).