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Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Steven Fortin Murder Case: Conflicting Bite Mark Testimony

     In 1994, police found the body of 25-year-old Melissa Padilla in a concrete pipe along Route 1 near Woodbridge, New Jersey. Naked from the waist down, she had been beaten and sexually assaulted. The killer had bitten her on the chin and left breast. Padilla had been abducted the night before from a nearby convenience store in the Avenel section of Woodbridge. The police had no suspects, and the investigation quickly died on the vine.

     In April 1995, the state police in Maine contacted the Padilla case investigators with a lead. They had arrested 31-year-old Steven Fortin for the sexual assault of a female state police officer who had been bitten on the chin and left breast. Fortin was also living in Woodbridge at the time of Padilla's murder. Although the suspect denied involvement in the New Jersey homicide, he pleaded guilty, in November 1995, to the assault in Maine. The judge sentenced him to 20 years.

     Five years after entering prison in Maine, the authorities in New Jersey put Fortin on trial for the murder of Melissa Padilla. The prosecution's key witness, FBI criminal profiler Robert Hazelwood, connected the defendant to the Padilla murder by noting similarities in its criminal MO to the sexual assault in Maine. The jury in New Jersey, on the strength of this testimony, found Fortin guilty. In February 2004, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction on the grounds it was not supported by sufficient evidence.

     New Jersey prosecutors retried Steven Fortin in 2007. This time they had physical evidence connecting him to the victim. A DNA analyst testified that the defendant could not be excluded as the primary source of the saliva recovered from the Marlboro cigarette butt found near Padilla's body. According to this expert, only one out of 3,500 people could be linked to this evidence. Moreover, the defendant could not be excluded as the DNA source of the blood and tissue traces found under the victim's fingernails.

     Dr. Lowell J. Levine, one of the pioneers in the field of crime scene bite mark identification, a forensic odontologist from upstate New York, had compared photographs of the victim's bite mark wounds (The photographs did not include a ruler measuring the marks because the photographer didn't recognize the bruises as teeth marks.) with photographs of the defendant's front teeth. Dr. Levine noticed a space between Fortin's lower front incisors that corresponded to a space in the mark on the victim's left breast. Dr. Levine testified that although he could not say to a scientific certainty that the defendant had bitten the victim, he could not exclude him as the biter.

     Dr. Adam Freeman, a forensic dentist from Westport, Connecticut, testified that in his study of 259 bite mark cases, the largest study of its kind, he found only 5 cases in which the attackers had bitten their victims on the chin and the breast. Dr. Freeman's testimony helped link the defendant, circumstantially, to the sexual assault in Maine for which he had pleaded guilty.

     Steven Fortin's defense team countered Dr. Levine with another world renowned forensic odontologist, Dr. Norman Sperber, the chief forensic dentist with the California Department of Justice. Dr. Sperber had testified for the defense at the first trial, but the jury had disregarded his testimony. He, like Dr. Levine, had testified for the prosecution in the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy. Since then, Dr. Sperber had appeared as an expert witness in 215 trials. According to his analysis, Steven Fortin could not have made the bite marks on Melissa Padilla's body. According to Dr. Sperber: "The tracing of his [Fortin's] teeth doesn't even come close to the crime scene bite marks." The forensic odontologist went on to say that bite mark analysis has limitations as a form of crime scene associative evidence. It was not as reliable, he said, as DNA and fingerprint identification. "Skin is a serious limitation for bite mark analysis because it rebounds and is movable," he said. "Bite mark evidence is not a true science."

     On December 4, 2007, the jury of nine men and three women, after deliberating nine hours, found Steven Fortin guilty of first-degree murder and first-degree sexual assault. The judge sentenced him to life plus twenty years.  

      

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