Another Dubious Bite Mark Case, This Time in Pennsylvania

Friday, April 24th, 2009

The Innocence Project of New York has asked for a review of an old Pennsylvania rape conviction based largely on dubious bite mark testimony. John Kunco was convicted in 1992 of the brutal rape of a 55-year-old woman. The woman survived the attack. Kunco is serving a 45 to 90 year sentence.

The main evidence against Kunco was the woman’s identification of his voice (he apparently has a lisp) and testimony from two bite mark analysts who claimed they could definitively match marks on the woman’s shoulder to Kunco’s dentition. Blood and hair samples collected at the crime scene were inconclusive.

Two forensic odonotologists, or bite mark experts, named Michael N. Sobel and Thomas J. David testified that they were able to use ultraviolet light to isolate and photograph the woman’s wounds. Based on that photograph they were able to match the wounds to Kunco’s teeth, to the exclusion of anyone else. Their testimony grows more absurd when you consider that the photograph was taken five months after the rape, after the wounds had mostly healed.

Sobel and David wrote an article about their analysis in the Kunco case for a 1994 edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences. In that article, they explain that “the technique used followed the recommendations developed by other odontologists.” One of the two footnotes to that sentence points to an article written by none other than . . . now-disgraced Mississippi bite mark expert, Dr. Michael West.

The Innocence Project is trying to get the bite mark testimony thrown out while lawyers await the results of more sophisticated DNA testing unavailable at the time of Kunco’s trial.

As I noted in February, a congressionally-commissioned report published by the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year states emphatically that there’s no scientific evidence to support the notion that an expert can match bite marks made on human skin to the dentition of a single suspect.

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22 Responses to “Another Dubious Bite Mark Case, This Time in Pennsylvania”

  1. #1 |  Marty | 

    Haynes and West just keep on giving! Now, since the crime stretched across state lines, so we get to do the RICO thing?

  2. #2 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Sigh. Gentlemen, someone got raped, someone was caught and put in jail for it. Let’s move on.

    Unless you’re implying that the justice system was more interested in closing a case than solving a crime?

  3. #3 |  Steve Clay | 

    Whatever the perceived implication, reasons for not “moving on”: If an innocent was put away for rape…
    1. the actual rapist can continue raping.
    2. an innocent person is in prison.
    3. bad prosecutorial procedures may be duplicated to allow further injustices. (See Dr. West)

  4. #4 |  Chris Grieb | 

    Post # 3 was very good.

  5. #5 |  MacK | 

    “Their testimony grows more absurd when you consider that the photograph was taken five months after the rape, after the wounds had mostly healed.”

    At 5 months “mostly healed” certainly does make it more absurd. I’ve got surgical cuts that were deeper then any bite mark could be, and were completely healed at 5 months on. I have scars from those super smooth cuts that are jagged messes, imagine what a twisted, torn, ragged bite mark scar must look like.

    I am saddened by some of the crap I see on here. I see it way to often in these cases. I am saddened more so by how stupid these citizen jurors must be. How can they consider shit like this when deciding a verdict?

  6. #6 |  Lorraine Sumrall | 

    Move on? You’re kidding, right? This man is in prison based upon extremely questionable and really unbelievable expert testimony in part based upon some kind of crazy ass procedure utilized by an already totally discredited charlatan, and you think we should just move on? No, thanks. I don’t want to move on. I want to stop right here and raise hell about the problems in our deck-stacked-against-the-defendant system we unfortunately have in this country. I, for one, am really sick of it.

  7. #7 |  Steve Verdon | 

    Michael Chaney,

    WTF?

  8. #8 |  Bob | 

    MacK:
    “I am saddened by some of the crap I see on here. I see it way to often in these cases. I am saddened more so by how stupid these citizen jurors must be. How can they consider shit like this when deciding a verdict?”

    They only get told what the rules allow them to be told. Here’s the basic problem: Most people believe that police and prosecutors are honest people truthfully trying to protect them by focusing their efforts on criminals, when in reality… a large percentage of them are opportunists looking to further their careers by manipulating the rules.

    For every crime, there are thousands of local people that didn’t do it, and only one that did. Much easier to find one of the thousands to convict than the one who’s guilty.

    The real rapist is still on the street? Just means more arrests and convictions when he rapes again. The judicial system is actually BENEFITED by leaving criminals on the street.

  9. #9 |  Bob | 

    Uh, guys… I’m pretty sure Michael Chaney was being sarcastic, pointing out that this is just business as usual in the Judicial System.

  10. #10 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Boy oh boy, looks like some broken sarcasm detectors around here today…

  11. #11 |  MacK | 

    Sarcasm is that a reverse orgasm?

  12. #12 |  MacGregory | 

    #8 Bob
    “Most people believe that police and prosecutors are honest people truthfully trying to protect them by focusing their efforts on criminals…”
    And the fact that we live in a nation of TV sheep people doesn’t help. CSI, Law & Order and my vote for biggest-crock-of-shit award Flashpoint. People actually believe that this crap is the way it really is.
    Anybody ever wonder what happens to the footage that hits the cutting room floor from the show “cops?”

  13. #13 |  Bob | 

    MacGregory:

    Don’t forget “The Wire”. This show just smacks of realism. I’ve only seen the fourth season, (Gotta score the first 3 on DVD).

  14. #14 |  SEO Site Review: Time to Clean Up Home-Yard | Latest SEO Talk | 

    […] The Agitator » Blog Archive » Another Dubious Bite Mark Case, This … […]

  15. #15 |  Robynn. | 

    I just want to say thanks for everyone speaking their minds about this case. John Kunco is my father and I appreciate everyone who agrees that an innocent person who had to spent almost 20 years in prison for a crime they did not commit is absolutely absurd, not only did they give 20 years of his life away, but they took a huge part out of my life as well. I was skipped out of a chance to grow up with my father. Thank you all.

  16. #16 |  Court Denies Kunco Relief in “Recaptured Bite Mark” Case « Bitemark Evidence | 

    […] The court has recently denied relief, due to legal technicalities in the 1991 Kunco v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania case where perhaps one of the most egregious uses of bitemark evidence was used to convict a man to 45-90 years in prison. Radley Balko, a Senior Editor of Reason Magazine first wrote about this case in 2009, which he published on his web site at http://www.theagitator.com/2009/04/24/another-dubious-bite-mark-case-this-time-in-pennsylvania/. […]

  17. #17 |  Judge Denies Relief to Pennsylvania Man Convicted on Bogus Bite Mark Testimony - Hit & Run : Reason Magazine | 

    […] (2.2 MB) — In April 2009 I blogged about the case of John Kunco, a Pennsylvania man convicted of a rape and murder in 1992 […]

  18. #18 |  Judge Denies Relief to Pennsylvania Man Convicted on Bogus Bite Mark Testimony | The Agitator | 

    […] In April 2009 I blogged about the case of John Kunco, a Pennsylvania man convicted of a rape and murder in 1992 based mostly on the testimony of a bite mark expert. The Innocence Project asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to grant Kunco a new trial, based mostly on the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic evidence that found no scientific evidence to support the proposition that it’s possible to trace bite marks in human skin to one person to the exclusion of all others. […]

  19. #19 |  Judge Denies Relief to Pennsylvania Man Convicted on Bogus Bite Mark Testimony | Daily Libertarian | 

    […] In April 2009 I blogged about the case of John Kunco, a Pennsylvania man convicted of a rape and murder in 1992 based mostly on the testimony of a bite mark expert. The Innocence Project asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to grant Kunco a new trial, based mostly on the 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on forensic evidence that found no scientific evidence to support the proposition that it’s possible to trace bite marks in human skin to one person to the exclusion of all others. […]

  20. #20 |  Judge Denies Relief to Pennsylvania Man Convicted on Bogus Bite Mark Testimony | Pennsylvania News Press | Pennsylvania Breaking News Headlines | News Directory | 

    […] In Apr 2009 we blogged about a box of John Kunco, a Pennsylvania male convicted of a rape in 1992 formed mostly on the testimony of a punch symbol expert. The Innocence Project asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to extend Kunco a new trial, formed mostly on a 2009 National Academy of Sciences news on forensic evidence that found no systematic justification to support the proposition that it’s probable to snippet punch outlines in tellurian skin to one chairman to a ostracism of all others. […]

  21. #21 |  Davie Rae | 

    This man was my mother’s brother. I think he was innocent and it was absolutely absurd that my Uncle John was arrested and put away for something he didn’t do. I am so sorry Robynn. Even though I don’t know you, your father was still my Uncle. You are in my prayers Uncle John.

  22. #22 |  Robynn | 

    Thank you, Davie Rae. I appreciate you and for speaking kind words against my father. He is your Uncle and you are my cousin! He really is innocent and I cannot wait until everything is settled so that everyone who doubted him can realize!

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