Just What Is Forensic Dentistry? How Does It Work?

Forensic dentistry is also known as forensic odontology. It’s the application of existing dental knowledge towards civil and criminal laws which law enforcement agencies and the larger criminal justice system apply and maintain. A forensic dentist might be involved in providing investigative assistance to departments or agencies charged with the recovery and identification of human remains, on top of the responsibility of simply identifying fragmented or whole bodies. A forensic dentist might even be requested to provide assistance in the determination of the age, occupation, prior dental history, race, and socioeconomic status of an unidentified set of human remains.

Forensic dentistry involves the proper handling, evaluation, and examination of potential dental evidence, often then presented in the larger interests of justice. Evidence that can sometimes be derived from teeth might include the age of a child or even the identification of a specific person as compared to dental records.

This process might involve dental records like radiographs, including DNA, and the comparison of ante-mortem and post-mortem photographs from before and after death. The phrase ‘forensic odontology‘ is itself derived from the language of Latin, roughly meaning a forum in which legal matters see discussion.

Bite marks are another kind of evidence studied and used by forensic dentists. Bite marks are sometimes left on the victim by an attacker or even the perpetrator themselves in the case of a defensive wound from a victim. Bite marks are also sometimes found on objects found at crime scenes. Bite marks are sometimes crucial evidence in cases of abused children.

In general, the duties and responsibilities of forensic dentists fall into six general categories.

  1. The first is the identification of discovered human remains.
  2. The second and closely related one is the identification of mass fatalities.
  3. The third is the assessment of potential or existing bite mark injuries.
  4. The fourth is assessing cases of abuse, be it a child, elder, or spousal.
  5. The fifth category involves civil cases of malpractice.
  6. The final category is estimating ages of deceased remains.

Forensic dentists make use of both biological and physical dental evidence in solving these numerous medicolegal problems that result from various causes, including crime, natural disasters, and terrorist activity

Forensic dentists often see employment at state or local levels by medical examiners or coroners. Postmortem dental examinations might include the use of digital imaging methodology, X-ray documentation, and the charting of cranial and dental features. Forensic professionals record, document, and disseminate their findings through very detailed reports.

Forensic dentistry has played a crucial role in the identification of victims of many major catastrophes, including the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks or the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. They were also instrumental following the crashes of American Airlines Flight 587 and Pan Am Flight 103.

Bite mark analysis plays a serious role in violent crimes such as rape, assault, and homicides. Forensic dentists will study bite marks but also possibly collect trace salivary evidence used in the matching and profiling of DNA. A forensic dentist might also conduct an injury analysis of the dental areas to establish cases of physical neglect.

When not at a crime scene or autopsy room of the local coroner or medical examiner, a forensic dentist might get asked to provide expert-level testimony in a criminal hearing.

Forensic odontology is reliant on scientific methods that might relate to teeth and jaw, and the field is used in many cases where identification isn’t possible through a person’s wallet or fingerprints, given decomposition of remains. A study of a person’s dental anatomy might reveal indicating clues through interpretation of dental materials, developmental abnormalities, pathology, and radiographs. Given that teeth are among the strongest elements within a human body, odontology is sometimes possible to be performed even after most of a body is destroyed, even in cases of arson or cremation.

Forensic dentists must undergo the training to be an actual dentist, but also must go through training specific to the field of forensic dentistry, which also includes continuing education and sessions in order to maintain their active status. In many areas, they must conduct a minimum number of identification cases with a successful rate. The median salary for a forensic dentist is approximately $150,000. Starting salaries across the country range from $80,000 to $125,000, but once in the field, the top 10 percent earn closer to $200,000.

Many forensic odontologists actually work as typical dentists much of the time, picking up forensic examinations on an as-needed basis when medical examiners or law enforcement request their services.

In the event of a death, a forensic odontologist might personally visit a disaster or crime scene. In other cases, X-rays and measurements are taken during an autopsy process.

Given that such disasters and crimes might happen at any given time, forensic dentists that are ‘on call’ have to be prepared to put in long hours whether it’s day or night, even on holidays and weekends.

This highly detailed work demands considerable fine motor skills, requiring exemplary accuracy and precision. Complicated equipment, including the use of microscopes and computers among other technologies, might be put into play during the process of identification.

Forensic dentistry requires considerable attention to detail, and a professional has to be capable of working patiently in a laborious step by step process without ever rushing. A forensic dentist has to be able to decide their conclusions solely based on what physical evidence is available. Complete and accurate records are a must.

Many professionals can find it emotionally disturbing to work closely with mass disasters, crimes, and the investigation of such circumstances. Just qualifying for the field is stressful enough, and it’s often the second line of work on top of their daily dental practice. Being summoned at any time 24/7 can be quite a jarring lifestyle, on top of personally witnessing the aftermath of murders and accidents. Testifying in court cases can be equally stressful, and sometimes more so.

Still, the income possible in this field, which is often on top of standard dental practice, makes for a comfortable lifestyle that can recuperate from such demands.

At the end of the day, it’s good that individuals fill this field, as their work can bring criminals to justice and peace of mind to families who might not otherwise know what happened to their loved ones.