Judge permits bite mark evidence for Ross retrial
District attorney can use testimony about mark during Ross murder retrial
HOLLIDAYSBURG — A Blair County judge has decided that bite mark evidence can be included in an upcoming murder retrial for Paul Aaron Ross, as long as the testimony reflects guidelines published by the American Board of Forensic Odontologists.
In a ruling signed Wednesday, Judge Jolene G. Kopriva declined to order a Frye hearing, named after a landmark ruling, where scientists, forensic dentists and other experts can weigh in on the validity of “novel scientific evidence” for use in a trial.
“The unique aspect of this case is that challenges are being brought to an existing scientific field, not a novel methodology,” Kopriva said.
That distinction clears the way for District Attorney Richard Consiglio to include testimony at the retrial about the bite mark on the body of 26-year-old Tina S. Miller. The Hollidaysburg woman was found dead on June 26, 2004, at Canoe Creek State Park, about a third of a mile from Ross’ Beaver Valley Home.
In testimony during Ross’ 2005 trial, an Allentown orthodontist told the jury that Ross’ dental impression was “very highly consistent” with the mark found on Miller’s body.
Defense attorney Thomas Dickey said Wednesday that he was disappointed with Kopriva’s ruling.
“It’s basically saying that because we’ve always let this evidence in, then we’re going to still let it in,” Dickey said.
In court documents and in court proceedings, Dickey and co-defense attorney Thomas Hooper tried to convince Kopriva that during the last decade, bite mark evidence has been challenged and rejected as unreliable science. They presented her with critical reports issued by the The National Academy of Sciences, the Texas Forensic Science Commission and the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Kopriva recognized those reports and their publication dates — 2009 for the NAS report and within the past year for the other two. She also recognized Consiglio’s response in which he raised questions about the methodologies used in generating the reports.
“Although the use of bite mark evidence is beginning to face challenges, it would be premature for this court to order that the methodology is no longer generally accepted in the relevant scientific community,” Kopriva wrote.
The judge’s order also directs that evidence regarding the bite mark and a suspect’s dental impression must follow guidelines set by the American Board of Forensic Odontologists. Based on that, testimony will be restricted as to whether the suspect’s dental impression can or cannot be excluded from ones that could have made the mark. Testimony in the first trial indicated that Ross’ dental impression was “very highly consistent” with the mark on Miller’s body.
Kopriva also stated in her ruling that the defense, during cross examination, can raise questions about bite mark evidence that will put the jury in a position to accept or reject what’s offered.
“I think that’s a disappointing conclusion when a man’s life is on the line,” Dickey said. “We think it’s up to the judge to keep this kind of bad science out of a trial.”
Kopriva’s order also sets a status conference for May 4 to discuss a trial date and jury selection questions.
Ross remains incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution at Mahanoy in Frackville, Schuylkill County.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.