Soccer fans were stunned when Luis Suarez bit an opponent during the World Cup games—even those who knew that Suarez had received counseling in the past for his habit of aggressive biting. The incident reminds us that some humans are known for leaving their marks—literally—on others.
I watched the news about Suarez recalling the controversy about bite marks found on West Memphis victim Stevie Branch and the first encounter that private investigator Ron Lax and his assistant Rachael Geiser had with Terry Hobbs, Stevie’s stepfather. As I relate in Dark Spell, Geiser reported:
“When we arrived, Terry asked us to wait for a minute while he disappeared to put in his false teeth. He did joke that his false teeth “have nothing to do with the bite marks.”
Now I am grateful to Dr. Mark Cowart, a Tennessee dentist, for the opportunity to urge closer examination of the bite mark on Stevie’s forehead. For years, as Cowart followed the case, nothing related to his profession stood out. However, that situation changed last year, as he explains in the following report.
HUMAN BITE-MARK EVIDENCE IN THE ROBIN HOOD HILLS TRIPLE CHILD MURDER CASE
By: Mark Cowart DDS
In 1998, the defense team for Damien Echols retained criminalist Brent Turvey to examine evidence in what’s known as the case of the West Memphis Three. In Mr. Turvey’s report, “Equivocal Examination and Psychological Profile of Case Evidence”, he mentioned possible human bite marks on the forehead of victim Stevie Branch:
Turvey reported that “there is the existence of patterned injuries all over this victim’s face that could be bite marks. Since the ME [medical examiner] may have missed this crucial evidence, other areas of his body may show bite mark evidence as well.
“The autopsy photos of this victim supplied to this examiner were not of sufficient quality to make an absolute determination of any kind, and would require a thorough examination by a qualified forensic odontologist for an informed, conclusive analysis.”
Turvey added, “Bite mark evidence is very important in any criminal case because it demonstrates behavior and lends itself to individuation. It can reveal to an examiner who committed the act, because bite marks can be as unique as fingerprints. And, once established, it also reveals the act itself; biting.”
In a Rule 37 hearing later that year, Dr. Thomas David, a board certified oral surgeon and forensic odontologist, identified the wound on Stevie’s face as a human adult bite mark. Based on dental impressions obtained from Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley in prison, David said all three were excluded as the offender.
Testifying for the defense, Dr. David offered his opinion that the wound on Branch’s forehead IS a human bite mark beyond reasonable medical certainty. He also pointed out some unusual details in the anatomy of the teeth that caused the wound:
Dr .David: Immediately to the right of the last injury that I described, there is a series of dots, if you will, connected by faint lines that are at right angles to one another.
Q. And based on your training and experience, did you form any opinions about what dental conditions, situations or descriptions might be the cause of that individual characteristic?
Dr. David: I think that probably the most likely explanation for that particular pattern would be that the edge of tooth number nine closest to the mid-line probably has a crack, a chip, some sort of irregularity on the surface that would cause it to mark differently than the edges of those other teeth. But I believe that there’s some unique feature that created a –a–an irregular tissue con—or surface contour on that tooth that’s at right angles to one another, or approaching right angles.
The prosecution countered with testimony from forensic odontologist, Dr. Harry Mincer. Dr. Mincer testified that the wound IS NOT a human bite mark. Dr. Mincer’s main concern is documented in this excerpt from his testimony:
Q. Okay. And using that if you could explain to the Court your biggest concern regarding this not being a bite mark.
Dr. Mincer: My biggest concern of it not being a bite mark—if you look at this one with this curve and this curve and this curve and this curve (INDICATING)—there are curved lines all over this poor victim and even deep gashes which also have a similar curvature which show up better on the side view—the the left side of the face.
Q. Doctor, could you refer to that exhibit number on that?
Dr. Mincer: Exhibit Thirteen M is the blow-up, and that’s the blow-up of the original Ten M.
Dr . Mincer: The curvature of these are very similar. I have seen personally two cases and at the meeting every February of the forensic organization—people—several cases have been demonstrated in which if you have multiple wounds, and in some cases the wounds were insect bites—in one of the cases I worked on—they were insect bites and another—well, a fellow showed a picture of crab bites from Florida, from the Gulf of Mexico, in which there were multiple wounds of all sizes and configurations, and it’s not—the conclusion was you would expect to see somewhere a curved pattern similar to a human bite.
“But with reasonable certainty to expect that all of these other wounds were made by some other instrument and that one wound was made by a human bite, would be beyond reason. And that’s mainly the reason I didn’t think that this wound, which somewhat resembles a human bite mark, is a human bite mark.
“If –and in my opinion—if this was the only picture I had—not this one but this one (INDICATING)—I could say this might be a human bite mark. But that’s as much as I could say — it might be.
“And if you said it was—it might be you could never either rule anyone in or out with something you said might be a bite mark because if you’re not certain or even probable that it’s a bite mark, that’s as far as you can go, is to say it might be a bite mark.”
While Dr. Mincer’s conclusion is that the wound IS NOT a human bite mark, his main concern seems illogical. He thinks it “beyond reason” that there could be two different causes for similarly curved wounds. Mincer also is not as steadfast in his opinion as David citing that the wound “might be a human bite mark”.
Judge Burnett sided with the prosecution and the West Memphis Three remained in prison. This hearing did not settle the issue of whether or not a bite mark exists on the forehead of Stevie Branch. Both sides presented credible expert witnesses and the judge did not feel that the defense met its burden of proof in the hearing.
Six years later, in 2004, Pam Hobbs found the partial denture of her estranged husband, Terry Hobbs, in a lock-box in his closet. The event is documented in her 2009 declaration from the Hobbs V. Pasdar civil suit: [link to: http://callahan.8k.com/wm3/p_hobbs_declaration2.html]
“Terry also had a strong fireproof lockbox which he locked and kept at the top of our closet. On one occasion in 2004, a boy Jo Lynn was dating pried open the box. The only thing in the box was Terry’s partial denture, a little bitty necklace that had a 1984 penny on it, and a marble. Jo Lynn and I discussed why Terry would lock up a partial denture. The only explanation we could come up with was that he did not want anyone to compare his dental imprint to what some people believed were bite marks on certain victims of the murders.”
Pam Hobbs gave the partial denture to Judge Dan Stidham. She no longer trusted the West Memphis police. Judge Stidham kept the partial denture in his personal safe.
By 2007, funds raised by celebrities such as Sir Peter Jackson allowed for a change of attorneys and experts. The human bite mark issue was overshadowed by expert opinion that almost all the facial wounds to Stevie Branch were caused by animal predation, specifically by a snapping turtle. A demonstration filmed for the documentary West of Memphis portrayed the wound pattern of a snapping turtle’s bite mark. This demonstration, however, compared the bite pattern to a wound on Stevie’s chin…not to the wound on his forehead.
I received a photograph of Hobbs’ partial denture in 2009. Having been a student of Dr. Mincer at the University of Tennessee Dental School in Memphis, I trusted his opinion that the forehead wound was NOT a human bite mark.
It wasn’t until September of 2013 that I realized that none of the new defense experts had ever compared Hobbs’ partial denture to the suspected human bite mark on the forehead of Stevie Branch. These experts had apparently focused only on debunking the State’s theory that the wound was caused by the butt-end of the proposed murder weapon, the Lake Knife.
Again, the defense team’s new forensic experts HAD NOT compared the bite pattern (partial denture) of the man who had by then become their MAIN SUSPECT to a wound that was the focus of the 1998 Rule 37 Hearing—the suspected bite mark on the forehead of Stevie Branch, the stepson of Terry Hobbs.
I proceeded to compare the photograph of Hobbs’ partial denture to the forehead wound. The partial denture was found in the lock-box with a red Marlboro cigarette box and they were photographed together. I purchased the same type Marlboro box to attain the correct scale and used the computer program Gimp 2.9 to create overlays. The photograph below (Photo #4) depicts the results:
After I made the bite mark comparisons, I sent them to several dental experts. Of the many responses I received, NONE opposed the conclusion that the wound on Stevie Branch’s forehead IS a human bite mark.