Bite marks don't match teeth of condemned dog Phineas, experts say

2013-07-19T10:00:00Z 2013-10-25T16:51:13Z Bite marks don't match teeth of condemned dog Phineas, experts sayBy Todd C. Frankel 314-340-8110

The bite doesn’t fit.

That’s what two dog-bite experts claim in new court filings in the contentious case of Phineas, a yellow Labrador retriever condemned to die for biting a girl in Salem, Mo., last summer.

A series of court challenges have so far delayed the dog’s sentence, which was imposed by the town’s mayor in July 2012. The 7-year-old girl, bit on her abdomen, was not seriously injured in the incident, which occurred during a visit to a friend’s house where Phineas was a pet.

But as the months passed — during which the dog was briefly kidnapped from the county animal shelter and then it seemed city officials were hiding the dog from its owners — Phineas’ unresolved fate attracted widespread public interest and led to division within the small town.

Now, two experts working for the dog’s owners said they believe Phineas did not bite the girl at all. They said the oval-shaped wound is too small and the dental pattern inconsistent with Phineas’ teeth. Their findings were included in a filing this week by the attorney for Phineas’ owners asking a Dent County judge to reconsider his opinion upholding the mayor’s ruling. A state appellate court also is expected to consider the matter.

One of the experts, Dr. Kenneth Cohrn, a forensic dentist in Lady Lake, Fla., compared photos of the girl’s wound and Phineas’ teeth. He struggled to adjust the photo sizes for comparison. But once he did, he felt certain that Phineas did not inflict the bite. The bite mark shows bruising and small cuts that look like a dog’s full jaw clamped closed on the girl’s side. Cohrn said he found no evidence of the deeper puncture wounds expected from Phineas’ four large incisors. But the size difference stood out the most to him.

“It’s not even close,” Cohrn said in a phone interview Thursday. “The dog’s dentition is so much larger than the pattern injury.”

Cohrn said he believes the bite was inflicted by a smaller dog.

A similar opinion was offered by James Crosby, a canine behavioral consultant in Jacksonville, Fla., who has studied bite marks. His report found that he could “reasonably exclude Phineas, to a degree of scientific certainty, as having been the source of this bruising injury.”

The science of examining bite marks is controversial, with doubts raised about standards by the National Academy of Sciences, but is still widely accepted by courts. Cohrn testifies in criminal cases and works with medical examiners. Forensic dentistry most often involves the identification of bodies using dental records. But it also involves examining bite marks as evidence. The field shot to prominence during the 1979 trial of serial killer Ted Bundy, when a forensic dentist matched an impression of Bundy’s teeth with a bite mark left on one of his victims. Bundy was convicted and sentenced to die.

Dog-bite analysis is not much different than one for a human bite, Cohrn said.

Mayor Gary Brown said Thursday he had not seen the dog-bite reports. He said he made his decision last year based on the evidence at the time, which included a police report and photos of the wound. Since then, nearly every aspect of the case has been called into question — from whether Phineas bit the same girl previously to the protocol for how the mayor made his decision.

Phineas is being boarded by a veterinarian in Salem, 125 miles south of St. Louis, as the case plays out. The attorney for the dog’s owners, Joe Simon, said the animal appeared healthy and well cared for.

The mayor said Phineas’ case has led to much “hate and discontent.”

But he said it is up to the courts now.

He would be “a little sad” if Phineas is put down, the mayor said. And if Phineas is freed, “I’d be tickled to death.”

Todd C. Frankel is an enterprise reporter. 

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