Bite mark evidence challenged in Ross case
Innocence Project Inc. attorney working with local lawyers to exclude testimony
HOLLIDAYSBURG — Defense attorneys for Paul Aaron Ross say there is no valid science linking a bite mark to a specific person, so when Ross’ murder case comes up for a retrial in Blair County court, that evidence should be excluded.
At a minimum, there should be a Frye hearing where scientists, forensic dentists and other experts can be brought to testify against its admission, attorney Dana M. Delger said Friday.
Frye hearings, named for a landmark ruling, are typically held to consider the admissibility of novel, scientific evidence.
Delger, an attorney with the Innocence Project Inc. of New York City, a national litigation firm with a history of challenging bite mark evidence in criminal cases, is working with Altoona attorneys Thomas M. Dickey and Thomas Hooper on behalf of the Hollidaysburg-area man facing a second trial.
Ross’ 2005 conviction in the murder of 26-year-old Tina S. Miller of Hollidaysburg was overturned on appeal, with the state Superior Court in October 2012 ordering a new trial. Miller’s body was found in the early morning hours of
June 26, 2004, at Canoe Creek State Park, about a third of a mile from Ross’ Beaver Valley Road home.
In court documents filed earlier this year, Dickey asked Judge Jolene G. Kopriva to exclude bite mark evidence from the retrial, which led to Friday’s court hearing before her.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has become the latest organization to identify bite mark evidence as profoundly unreliable, joining the National Academy of Sciences, the Texas Forensic Science Commission and other academic researchers and scientists, Delger said.
Other state and federal agencies have been critical of such findings, which may reflect only a portion of the scientific community, District Attorney Richard Consiglio said.
And even though the Texas attorney general’s office cooperates with the forensic science commission, Consiglio said bite mark evidence remains admissible in that state and every other state.
Still, the Texas commission’s April 2016 report recommends that bite mark comparison evidence “not be admitted” in criminal cases in Texas until development of additional criteria.
The research finding fault with bite mark evidence, Delger said, has been done by those interested in the validity of the science and not the outcome of a specific court case.
“Now that we know there are problems, the question is … What do we do in the future?” she said. “We can’t pretend (bite mark evidence) is still reliable.”
Consiglio reminded Kopriva of testimony offered in the first trial that did not specifically identify Ross as the person who made the bite mark found on Miller’s body during an autopsy. Instead, Dr. Dennis Asen, an Allentown orthodontist, told the jury that Ross’ dental impression was “very highly consistent” with that mark.
Asen also told the jury that based on his examination of the bite mark, it could not have been made by any one of the four additional people Miller was with on the night she died.
Delger said Asen went beyond his level of expertise and failed to identify how many people could fit into that same category of consistency. But Consiglio countered there was no need to consider if someone in China or Johnstown would leave the same kind of bite impression.
“You hear this in practically every case … that somebody else could have done this,” Consiglio said.
Kopriva offered no indication of when she will rule on the admissibility of the bite mark evidence or if she will call for a Frye hearing, which would keep the retrial on hold.
She did set a Jan. 16 deadline for Ross’ attorneys to offer a written response to the arguments Consiglio offered in court and in writing. Once Ross’ attorneys respond, then prosecutors will have 10 days to respond, she said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.