Forensic dentist uses teeth to crack cases
by Franklin Wright
As a dentist, I know firsthand a healthy smile can instill confidence and improve a person's overall well-being. But working in forensic dentistry I've discovered that teeth - or what we learn from them - can also help grieving families find closure and abuse victims get justice in court.
Not long after graduating from dental school in 1984, I found my desire to use my education and help people leading me down a parallel path where dentistry and law intersect. Today, I see patients typically four days a week, while focusing most Fridays, evenings and weekends on forensic dentistry. Working in forensics involves everything from identifying human remains using dental records to analyzing bite marks on victims of violent crime to determine who might be the assailant.
For more than 25 years, I've worked on homicide cases involving abducted children, identified car crash victims, and twice traveled to New York City in 2001 to help identify the deceased after 9-11. But in forensic dentistry, I don't often see the results of my work as I do in my dental practice. I rarely get to meet victims or families, save for what I observe by testifying in court. But one early case was different.
After dental school, I'd begun moonlighting as a referee for high school and college football games, and ran into Jim, a childhood friend. We reconnected, became part of the same officiating crew, and worked many games together over the next few years.
Then one morning I got the call from the county coroner's office. The night before, a gasoline tanker truck had wrecked - overturning and then exploding. The subsequent fire was so hot firefighters had to let it burn. Hours later, they recovered a badly burned body.
Even before I got the call from the coroner's office requesting dental identification, Jim's wife had called to say there was a good chance he had been the one driving the truck and she was desperate to know, with absolute certainty, his fate.
I remember calling Jim's wife when I got back home that morning and telling her the remains were Jim's. "Are you absolutely sure it's Jim?" she implored. With great emotion, I confirmed, and somehow, she thanked me. I knew it was only a small measure, but I took some solace from her words.
I have since identified the remains in several other cases that also hit much too close to home. But the memory of Jim's passing and the role I served to his wife and family have given me the strength to continue to provide closure for other families, who are desperate to know the fate of their loved one, too.
Franklin Wright is a highly rated dentist in Cincinnati and the immediate past president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology. In addition to improving smiles, he helps identify the deceased through dental records and provides bite-mark analysis in cases involving violent crime.