Ted Bundy's Teeth: Forensic Dentistry and His Conviction
A Charming Killer on Trial for Murder
During his life, Ted Bundy was many things: a son, a boyfriend, a husband, and a father. He was also a depraved psychopath and a murderer. And his key to success in both carrying out and getting away with these crimes was his irresistible charm and attractive personality. No one wanted to believe the easy-going and seemingly mild-tempered Bundy was a serial killer with dozens of innocent victims from different states around the country.
What was it that was so captivating about Bundy? Dan Sewell, a reporter who covered Bundy’s 1979 trial for murdering two women in a Florida sorority, offers a glimpse of an answer. In court, a spectator he encountered described Bundy as a smiling, winking, confident figure. The teenage girl, fully aware she was watching a man accused of multiple brutal slayings, still found him both impressive and fascinating with an undeniable magnetism. None of these words have a negative connotation. Interviews with others revealed they saw him as handsome and expressive. While some did sense a darkness underneath his pleasant exterior, this belief was held by only a minority of those Sewell talked to.
Even after a jury convicted Bundy of the crimes, Sewell found himself taken in by Bundy's charms while later interviewing the murderer about his upcoming sentencing. During the interview, Bundy imitated the judge’s southern drawl when answering questions, and Sewell found himself smiling in amusement, despite the situation. The reporter later admitted his confusion about how such a personable and engaging man could be capable of cold-blooded murder.
Even Judge Cowart seemed unable to find Bundy completely despicable as he sentenced him to death for his “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” actions. He, like the others, couldn’t help but notice and comment on Bundy’s good qualities that he thought would have made him an excellent lawyer. Further, Cowart said he would have loved so see Bundy practice in his court had he not committed multiple counts of murder. He then called him “partner” during his sentencing and wished him well in a way, by saying Bundy should take care of himself as he left the courtroom. This was after hearing testimonies of Bundy’s crimes daily for weeks.
Most shocking of all, during his second murder trial for yet another innocent victim, Bundy proposed marriage while interviewing a character witness. The witness accepted and they were married and even had a child together. Again, his charm was so great that people struggled to believe he could have really done what he did. Even after sitting in the courtroom and viewing all of the evidence and seeing him formally convicted of doing it.
A psychologist explained to Sewell that Bundy used his charm as a powerful and effective weapon. He used the analogy of chess, where Bundy was moving pieces against all others. In this game, Bundy believed he was smarter and would win. His leverage was his jokes, his winks, and his confidence. The irresistible persona immortalized in pictures of him laughing and smiling. Yet, those pearly whites that had helped him excel at crime were also what ultimately brought about his undoing.
Tooth-Based Analysis in the Courtroom
Because, in that Florida courtroom during his first murder trial in 1979, in front of Judge Cowart, reporter Dan Sewell, and a host of female spectators lost in helpless admiration, Bundy was forced to watch as his tooth impressions ultimately betrayed him. He had bitten one of his murder victims -- a woman in a Florida sorority house -- multiple times and left behind some unusual forensic evidence: the distinct marks of his teeth. And not just one, but multiple sets of them. Therefore, of all the people Bundy had encounters with, it was a pair of dentists who put the nails in his proverbial coffin.
These forensic dentists, or odontologists, were Lowell Levine and Richard Souviron. Both men were only consulted when Sheriff Katsaris, desperate to find some kind of physical proof of Bundy’s involvement in the crime, discovered the bite marks on one of the sorority victims. He immediately took a picture while placing a ruler next to them as a point of reference. Later, his quick thinking made all the difference.
Dentists Make an Impression on the Jury
These marks revealed some identifying characteristics. The set of teeth that created them had a chipped left incisor with three peaks and distinctly crooked bottom teeth. This perfectly described Bundy’s teeth. The dentists used wax molds of Bundy’s bite and photographs of the prints on the corpse to help make their case. They also compared a large photo of Bundy’s bite impressions to the marks photographed on the body. When one was placed on top of the other, they matched. According to these experts and their visual supporting evidence, both were virtually identical. They also used computer-enhanced imagery to show it in more detail.
At the time of Bundy’s trial, forensics was a limited science. Further, samples in his crimes were lost or destroyed, and so these bite marks, witness testimony, and some circumstantial evidence pretty much had to make the prosecutions case. However, forensic dentistry proved to be quite convincing. This was despite a dentist admitting that his work was a mixture of art as well as science and that he had presented his opinion and not indisputable facts. His visual aids made an impression, nonetheless.
After all, bite mark analysis is critically different from other forms of evidence. Things like blood testing or breathalyzer results, though calculated by experts, are done at another location than the courtroom. Forensic dentistry measurements and comparisons can be done right in front of the jury. They can see the process for themselves and how the expert came to a conclusion.
Beyond this, limited science may have encouraged the jury to place more value on this testimony than they should have. After all, recent research questions the reliability of bite mark evidence when prosecuting alleged criminals. However, this was unknown at the time of Bundy's crimes.
A book on Bundy’s life written shortly after the trial illustrates this misconception. Its author claimed that forensic odontology worked much like fingerprinting. Each person has unique rings on the tips of their fingers. Each person also has characteristic chips, spacing, and other details that set their teeth apart from those of others. Because of this, matching them to wounds based on these differences should be a pretty straightforward practice. This was also the belief of many in the field of science. It is why the dentists explained that odontology, though not infallible, was still highly reliable. In other words, seeing the evidence and believing the science to be more accurate than it really is made it so Bundy never had a chance.
Bundy understood this. Typically charming yet aggressive while representing himself in court, he couldn’t defend himself in the case of this evidence and failed to testify after its presentation. As a result of forensic dentistry, the jury determined he was guilty in the span of hours.
The Problems With Bite Mark Evidence
Ted Bundy was guilty; of that we are certain. But the evidence that ultimately brought him down may have been flawed, according to recent research. Since the infamous Florida trial, hundreds of others have been convicted of murder or rape by matching body wounds to identifying dentistry. Sometimes, the result is execution.
However, it turns out that those found guilty off odontology evidence are in fact innocent much more often than one would expect. This may occur for different reasons. Some accuse others in the profession of forensic dentistry of taking liberties in court cases and tainting the science. Such is the proclamation Richard Souverion made about Michael West, another dentist. Over a dozen convicts were set free from 2000 to 2018 after they were exonerated based on DNA. In support of Souverion’s claims, West made testimony in two of these cases. However, Souverion himself partook in a case where the defendant was found guilty, only to have the verdict changed. So, clearly, there is more at play than just a lack of ethics.
This can be seen in many cases. For example, in 1995, a man named Gerard Richardson was convicted of murdering a 19-year-old woman based off of her boyfriend's statement and a bitemark on the victim's body. A dental expert claimed he was positive that Richardson had made the bite and used the report from Richardson's own expert to come to this conclusion.
However, obviously, the expert supporting Richardson who had initially created the report had come to a polar opposite conclusion. How could two supposed experts be positive of both one man's innocence as well as his guilt while looking at the same exact scientific evidence? When it comes to fingerprints, such debates do not exist. Nonetheless, Richardson was jailed despite the seemingly contradictory testimonies. Shockingly, he was released only a little over a month later after the DNA from the bite's saliva matched another convict.
Even Michael West, the supposedly unscrupulous dental expert, made a startling admission about bite mark analysis. He claimed it was not in fact as reliable as fingerprints and had no place in a courtroom due to the newest advancements in DNA science. Unfortunately for the many he helped land in jail, without new evidence proving their innocence, they will remain where they are. Behind bars. Who knows the extent of damage caused by bite marks.
However, at least as far as Ted Bundy is concerned, it stopped a guilty homicidal maniac from killing again. Without it, he likely would have committed further criminal offenses and charmed everyone into assuming his innocence.