Thirty-six years after he first refused to plead guilty to killing his wife, 62-year-old Charles McCrory was given the chance to leave prison and salvage the rest of his life. On one condition: After repeatedly proclaiming his innocence since the spring of 1985, McCrory would have to say that he’d been guilty all along.

The offer came via his lawyer, Mark Loudon-Brown of the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights, on the eve of an evidentiary hearing in Andalusia, Alabama. As Loudon-Brown told Covington County Circuit Judge Lex Short the next day, Chief Assistant District Attorney Grace Jeter indicated “that if Mr. McCrory would be willing to admit guilt in this case, she had authority to consent to his release from prison.”

But McCrory said no. “He does not wish to do that,” Loudon-Brown said. “And so I wanted to make sure the record was clear on that.” A few feet away, Jeter remained expressionless. The judge asked if she had any response. “No, sir,” she said. The hearing would move forward as planned.

It was just after 1 p.m. on April 28, 2021, at the county courthouse in Andalusia, a small city just north of the Florida border. Down a hill behind the courthouse is the old county jail where McCrory was held following his arrest. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the decaying brick building stood grimly juxtaposed against a fleet of trucks belonging to the Covington Casket Company, the county’s oldest manufacturer. Covid-19 had brought a boom in business; on the day of the hearing, warehouse workers listened to music while lining caskets with fabric.

McCrory-family

Charles and Julie McCrory with their son, Chad.

Credit: Courtesy of Larry Grissett

McCrory’s wife, 24-year-old Julie Bonds McCrory, was found brutally beaten to death in their home in 1985. The evidence against her husband was paltry at best, but prosecutors moved aggressively; McCrory was swiftly tried and convicted of murder. After insisting on his innocence for 3 1/2 decades, McCrory secured a new legal team, which filed a petition for a new trial in March 2020. His lawyers argued that new evidence debunked the most crucial component of the state’s case: alleged teeth marks found on Julie’s body, which a famed bite-mark expert, Dr. Richard Souviron, said conclusively matched McCrory’s unique dentition.

Souviron, the prosecution’s star witness at McCrory’s trial, has since changed his tune. In a 2019 affidavit, he recanted his testimony.

“As a forensic odontologist I no longer believe the individualized teeth marks comparison testimony I offered in his case was reliable or proper,” he wrote. “I no longer believe, as I did at the time of trial, that there is a valid scientific basis for concluding that the injury found on the skin of the victim in this case, assuming that the injury is in fact teeth marks, could be ‘matched’ or otherwise connected to a specific individual, such as Mr. McCrory.”

Rather than exonerate McCrory, however, prosecutors fought back, arguing among other things that because McCrory had challenged Souviron’s testimony in a previous appeal, he was barred from trying again. In December 2020, Short granted an evidentiary hearing to allow both sides to make their case.

It would be a consequential hearing. Over the last decade, bite-mark analysis has been thoroughly debunked as junk forensic science, a subjective pattern-matching practice that has seen dozens of people wrongly convicted. In fact, according to the Innocence Project — which has been on a mission to banish bite-mark evidence from the courtroom — McCrory is the last remaining defendant known to have been convicted almost solely on the faulty forensic practice. The expert witnesses at McCrory’s evidentiary hearing were dentists who were once true believers but now use their expertise to correct their colleagues’ past mistakes and educate judges about erroneous bite-mark analysis.

Although the science was on their side, McCrory’s lawyers were up against a criminal legal system that often favors finality over accuracy. They would still be fighting an uphill battle against prosecutors, and the courts, to clear their client’s name.

McCrory was not in attendance at the hearing. He was watching remotely from a minimum-security prison 175 miles to the north. Before he went to prison, McCrory was a computer whiz who taught classes at the local junior college — “a geek before it was fashionable to be one,” as one of his trial attorneys put it. McCrory’s son, Chad, recalled his grandmother saying that McCrory once claimed that every household would have a computer one day. “She was like, ‘Hey, no way, that’s just crazy,’” Chad said.

“The testimony had no value. That testimony convicted an innocent man.”

Chad was just 3 years old when his mom was murdered and his dad incarcerated. Now 39, he believes in his father’s innocence, which has left him estranged from his mother’s side of the family. In a blue suit, Chad sat with his wife and aunts on the left side of the courtroom, while his maternal uncle sat on the right, accompanied by his family and the former Covington County district attorney whose office charged McCrory back in 1985.

Loudon-Brown turned things over to Chris Fabricant, director of strategic litigation at the Innocence Project, who has led the legal efforts to extirpate bite-mark evidence. “Your Honor, at the time of Mr. McCrory’s 1985 trial, there had never been a single wrongful conviction attributable to the use of bite-mark evidence,” Fabricant began. The forensic discipline was widely accepted in courtrooms across the country. But “the Innocence Project has documented 35 wrongful convictions and indictments attributable to the use of bite-mark comparison in criminal trials,” he went on. “As we stand here today, bite marks are no longer accepted in the scientific community.”

Fabricant emphasized that Souviron himself, one of the field’s founding practitioners, had disavowed his testimony against McCrory. “There was no science behind what he had to say. The testimony had no value. That testimony convicted an innocent man.”

Woman Down

As Charles McCrory recalled, the day his wife was found murdered started out fairly routine.

It was May 31, 1985, and the Alabama Electric Cooperative, where he worked as information systems manager, had just switched to a 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. workday. It only meant coming in half an hour earlier, but he still hadn’t nailed the timing, and that Friday he was running late, meaning he didn’t have time to swing by Hardee’s to pick up a biscuit and a Coke for breakfast.

The same thing had happened the day before. Julie had dropped by his office and agreed to make a run to Hardee’s. As he later recounted, McCrory thought maybe she’d help him out again, so he picked up the phone at his desk and called her.

The couple had recently separated after a decade together. They’d met as students at Andalusia High School. McCrory was 17 and Julie was 14. They dated for five years before getting married. In 1982 they had a son, Chad. But lately they’d been struggling. McCrory was bored; he and Julie had been together so long. Their sex life was great, but he’d been feeling like he needed more. He’d had an affair with a co-worker at the local junior college, though he’d mostly broken that off too.

Still, he and Julie got along well. Although he’d moved out, they still spent plenty of time together. In fact, he’d been over at the house they’d shared on Lori Lane the previous evening. Julie did his laundry. They sat in the den and played with Chad while “Hill Street Blues” was on TV, before stealing away to the bedroom to have sex. Julie removed a fabric belt from one of her dresses and loosely tied his wrists to the bedpost; he didn’t object. He left the house with two baskets of freshly folded laundry just after the nightly news came on. He kissed Julie and Chad goodbye and pulled his Ford Bronco out of the driveway with a honk and a wave — Chad always liked it when he did that.

But on Friday morning, Julie was not answering the phone. She didn’t have to be at work until 8, so maybe she was in transit to his parents’ house, where McCrory’s mom watched Chad on workdays. McCrory called his mom, who said Julie hadn’t been by yet. At 8 he called her job; Julie wasn’t there.

Fifteen minutes later, McCrory’s mom called back. She was worried. Julie had never been so late to drop off Chad. She told McCrory that his father was going to the house on Lori Lane to check on them. McCrory was worried now too. As he headed out in his Bronco, the two-way radio mounted in the cab crackled with life. McCrory was a longtime volunteer with the city’s rescue squad and served as the crew’s second-in-command. The radio communicated on both rescue squad and Andalusia Police Department channels.

He recognized the voice coming over the radio as that of Jeff Holland, a city fire department employee; they were making a run to Lori Lane. All they knew was that “a woman was down,” McCrory later recalled. He told Holland that he was also en route. McCrory arrived before the squad. He was headed toward the front door when he ran into his dad, who was in a frenzy. Something was “bad wrong” with Julie, he told McCrory.

McCrory went into the house. All the lights were off. Julie was lying prone just inside the entrance. Her pink nightgown was pushed up around her torso. Her head was turned to the side, beaten and bloodied, and her eyes were blackened. She was obviously dead. McCrory rushed out of the house stricken. He asked his dad about Chad and his father said he was OK; he’d found Chad in his bed. The boy was now across the street, where the neighbors were taking care of him.

When the rescue squad arrived, McCrory approached Holland and told him that Julie was dead. Holland checked her for vital signs before calling the police.

Investigators Billy Treadaway and Wade Garrett were the first cops to arrive. Treadaway quickly realized they would need backup. He radioed police dispatch and asked them to call a forensics guy, Charlie Brooks, from the state crime lab about an hour away. Treadaway put crime scene tape around the property and talked to McCrory. “He said that he hoped that I get the fellow that done it,” Treadaway later testified.

Brooks, Treadaway, and Garrett examined the scene. The house wasn’t immaculate, but it was about what you’d expect with a toddler around. Treadaway didn’t see any signs of a struggle or forced entry, and McCrory’s father said the front door was ajar when he’d arrived. There were no bloody footprints or fingerprints. Two windows in the master bedroom were open, but the investigators disregarded this, according to court records. Instead, as the day warmed up, they closed them and turned on the air conditioning.

Garrett, who previously worked for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation and had been trained as a fingerprint examiner, did not dust the windows for prints. He also failed to print a sliding glass door, and he never went into the bathroom. In fact, even though he remained at the house until early the following morning, Garrett didn’t dust much of anything save for the front doorknob, a pitcher on the kitchen table, a chair that was pulled back from the table, and some fast-food promotional glasses in the sink — two Snoopy glasses and a Care Bears glass.

The medical examiner noted one additional injury: Two “semi-lunar” indentations to the back of Julie’s right arm.

Eventually the investigators made a closer inspection of Julie’s body. Her head had been bashed in and the front of her nightgown was saturated with blood. There were hairs in her left hand and on her chest, which Brooks collected. He noted that a length of pantyhose was tied around her right wrist. There was also a red bandanna on the floor not far from her body.

The investigators searched for a murder weapon to no avail. Although no one inspected the kitchen knives or any other sharp utensils, Treadaway did notice that a fire poker, part of a set of tools in the den, was missing. At some point, Garrett’s attention was called to a footprint outside — just beyond the McCrorys’ back fence, which abutted the property of a local business, Bullard Excavating. The footprint was photographed.

Around 6 p.m., Brooks and Treadaway drove Julie’s body nearly three hours north to Montgomery, where Dr. Joseph Sapala, a state medical examiner, conducted the autopsy. There were long bruises across the back of Julie’s hand, and her jaw was broken in two places. There were 11 small, rectangular puncture wounds to her chest — at more than four inches deep, they’d damaged her left lung and pulmonary artery. And then there were the head wounds, which Sapala ultimately determined to be the cause of death. Six were described as “chop wounds,” presumably blows made by a sharp instrument. Another Sapala described as a blunt force injury that fractured Julie’s skull.

Finally, the medical examiner noted one additional injury: Two “semi-lunar” indentations to the back of Julie’s right arm. He placed a penny by the wounds for scale — together they were no wider than the coin’s diameter — and an assistant took a photo. Sapala concluded that this was a bite mark.

While Sapala catalogued the many injuries Julie had sustained, his resulting report was cursory. It did not indicate whether her body was in rigor, nor did it mention the degree of lividity — the gravitational pooling of blood in the body after death — both of which might have provided at least a general time of death. Instead, in trial testimony, it was Brooks who offered the lay opinion that Julie had been killed sometime in the early morning hours.

Over the next few days, police would question McCrory several times. Each time, he recounted the same story about his relationship with Julie: that he’d been with her in the house Thursday night and that he hadn’t been able to reach her Friday morning. He let police search his Bronco and his apartment, but they found nothing.

Roughly 24 hours after Julie’s body was found, investigators took McCrory to see his dentist, Dr. William King. McCrory had consented to the dentist making a mold of his teeth for casting. King looked at McCrory’s mouth; he didn’t see any cuts or bruising on his lips or gums. McCrory seemed calm, King later testified, but he also noticed that he was shaking.

King, who still practices in Andalusia, remembers taking the molds from McCrory. Law enforcement agents stood by as he worked. “They didn’t ever leave my sight,” he said. He recalled being shocked when McCrory became a suspect. He was “mild-mannered,” King said, a guy he would never have imagined to be a murderer. “Of course, I’m sure everybody does that when they look back. … I just wouldn’t have guessed that.”

Illustration

Illustration: Clay Rodery for The Intercept

Everybody Turned So Quick

Julie McCrory was buried on June 3 in a graveside service at the Andalusia Memorial Cemetery, just two blocks away from her home. The family could see police parked nearby in unmarked cars. One of them was Andalusia police officer Howard Easley. Afterward, Easley recalled, “I stopped McCrory in his vehicle and asked if he would come with me to the Sheriff’s Department, which he did voluntarily, driving his own vehicle.”

Easley had also responded to the scene the day Julie was found. He recalled being put off by McCrory’s demeanor that morning. He seemed “nonchalant,” Easley said. “No emotion whatsoever.” Among law enforcement agents, suspicion over McCrory’s bearing quickly hardened into a belief in his guilt. When McCrory’s sister ReNay McCrory Smith visited him in jail the day after his arrest, she remembers the sheriff telling her, “He’s a murderer, and I don’t have any use for him.”

“What really put me off with Andalusia at the time is how everybody turned so quick when all this happened,” Smith said. “Here’s a guy that’d been working on the rescue squad as a volunteer all these years. … And he was an auxiliary policeman as well. And nobody stood up for him and said, ‘There’s no way this guy could have done this.’”

“Here’s a guy that’d been working on the rescue squad as a volunteer all these years. … And nobody stood up for him.”

The murder shattered the town’s sense of safety. McCrory’s younger sister, Laura Grissett, who babysat Chad as a teenager, remembered Julie sometimes leaving her car running for half an hour outside when picking him up. “But after that, you just didn’t do it anymore,” she said. Their father was especially traumatized. “Daddy nailed the windows shut,” Grissett said. “He’d check under the beds before we were allowed to go in the house because he was terrified.”

The community was still reeling from the murder when, just over a month later, another young woman was abducted and raped not far from where Julie had been found. A man named Alton Ainsworth, who worked at Bullard Excavating, was quickly arrested and later pleaded guilty to the crime. Police questioned Ainsworth but never fully investigated him as a possible suspect in Julie’s murder — even though he was known to wear a red bandanna like the one found near her body.

On the day McCrory was arrested, his dental molds were transported to the state’s head medical examiner in Montgomery, along with photos of the injury Sapala believed to be a bite mark. The medical examiner called Souviron, a renowned forensic odontologist, in Coral Gables, Florida.

Souviron, 48, had impressive credentials — and a knack for getting good press. A style columnist once praised him alongside other “gentlemen of distinction” for a cut that gave his thinning hair “a rugged, touchable look.” In the late 1970s, as the burgeoning field of bite-mark analysis caught on nationwide, the Miami Herald published a glowing profile of Souviron titled “The Dentist as Detective: A Pioneer in Criminology.” But his biggest claim to fame was as a star witness against serial killer Ted Bundy in 1979. Newspapers printed large photos of Souviron holding a wooden pointer while presenting oversize images of Bundy’s teeth to the jury. Souviron enjoyed taking the stand. “It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s challenging to have someone cross-examine you,” he told the Herald. “I guess it’s because I feel secure in what I testify to.”

Souviron told the medical examiner that he would review the evidence in Julie McCrory’s murder. On August 14, 1985, a week after receiving the dental models, photographs of Julie’s injuries, and the autopsy report, he sent a letter reporting his findings. Although only one of the 28 photographs “would be of value in making an actual one to one comparison with the models of Mr. McCrory,” he wrote, he’d found some “unusual phenomena.” McCrory’s upper left lateral incisor was missing, leaving a “seven millimeter space” between the upper left front tooth and his upper left canine. Based on these observations, he concluded, “the marks in the arm could have been made by the teeth of Mr. Charles McCrory.”

Souviron’s letter contained some key caveats, however. “First of all, it is impossible in my opinion, unless very unusual circumstances exist, to make a positive identification from two teeth of a bite mark,” Souviron wrote. What’s more, the photographs appeared to show only two upper teeth, which was odd since the upper jaw is fixed; the lower teeth are the ones that “grab and hold.” Further, the defense might argue that the injury could have been made by the same instrument that inflicted the puncture wounds on Julie’s chest, Souviron wrote. Ultimately, “if there is [a] substantial amount of additional evidence such as fingerprints, blood, hair, semen, etc.,” then the marks shown in the photos “would be of some value.” But if the marks were the sole means of identifying the perpetrator, he cautioned, “I feel that this is not in the best interest of justice.”

Despite the gruesome crime scene, no physical evidence had been linked to McCrory.

In other words, Souviron might be willing to say that the rather ambiguous-looking injury was a bite mark so long as plenty of other evidence implicated McCrory too.

This posed a problem for authorities. Despite the gruesome crime scene, no physical evidence had been linked to McCrory. Investigators never found a murder weapon. The hairs collected from the body belonged only to Julie, and while some of the random fingerprints on the furniture and kitchenware matched McCrory, that was hardly compelling given that he was often at the house on Lori Lane. As for the footprint out back, the pantyhose, and the red bandanna, no one ever figured out where they came from.

Still, police had found a couple of items at the home that might prove useful: a VHS tape and a collection of photographs featuring Julie and her husband in various kinky scenarios. The images were graphic and, to some, shocking. “There is more than one scene in which the young lady is — what is considered in bondage,” a defense witness testified at a pretrial hearing on August 21.

Although the activities depicted were consensual, prosecutors sought to introduce the tape and photos as evidence against McCrory at trial. The goal was apparently to show that McCrory had deviant sexual proclivities that escalated as he sought further gratification — or as one prosecutor put it, that “bondage sex” could lead to “stronger and stronger acts of violence.” Although defense attorneys convinced the trial judge not to allow the items into evidence, gossip soon ran rampant throughout the town. Some said Julie’s murder had been the result of some kind of sex ring.

One reporter who covered the trial for the Andalusia Star-News remembers “a lot of rumors, innuendo” surrounding the tape and photographs. In a “small South Alabama town, you know, deep in the heart of the Bible Belt,” those things didn’t have to make it into court to have an impact.

A photo taken by Dr. Richard Souviron shows the injury on Julie McCrory’s arm alongside Charles McCrory’s dental mold.

A photo taken by Dr. Richard Souviron shows the injury on Julie McCrory’s arm alongside Charles McCrory’s dental mold.

Photo: Courtesy of the Southern Center for Human Rights

This Set of Teeth

McCrory’s trial began on October 21, 1985, at the Covington County District Court. It was less than five months after Julie’s murder. Elected District Attorney Grady Lanier was intent on moving forward quickly, even without such key evidence as a murder weapon. “When you see the blows that were on the back of her head, you didn’t need a weapon,” he said. “They spoke for themselves.” Besides, in his experience, convictions were easier to win when a crime was still fresh in a community’s mind.

The courtroom was packed with spectators. Representing McCrory was M.A. “Bubba” Marsal, a prominent criminal defense lawyer from Mobile whose high-profile clients included a follower of Charles Manson and a Ku Klux Klan member who’d been sent to death row. Known perhaps for his charisma more than his legal prowess, Marsal was paired with a younger local attorney named Larry Grissett (no relation to McCrory’s sister).

On the state’s side was an unorthodox arrangement: Rather than rely on Lanier to secure the conviction, Julie’s family had hired a local father-son legal team: personal injury attorney Frank Tipler and his son Harvey. While uncommon, hiring a private prosecutor was “not illegal” in Alabama, a 1988 report in the Montgomery Advertiser found. One lawyer told the paper it was a bad idea. “If you have the victims hiring a lawyer to prosecute a case, that lawyer will be hell-bent to send the defendant to the penitentiary … and to drag him through the mud, regardless of the amount of evidence against him.”

“I do not think we can truly have a future until all the past is dead.”

The trial transcript does not include opening or closing remarks. But the state’s theory appears to have been that McCrory had grown tired of his marriage and brutally murdered his wife to be free from her. As their first witness, prosecutors called 31-year-old Gloria Wiggins, the former co-worker with whom McCrory had recently had an affair, and asked her to read several letters the two exchanged. But apart from some tortured declarations of love, there was no evidence that McCrory was planning a future with Wiggins. In one letter, he wrote that his wife and son would always be a part of his life.

Rather than point this out, however, Marsal shamed Wiggins for carrying on a relationship with a married man. Most confusingly — and perhaps most damaging to his client — Marsal seized on a line from a letter Wiggins wrote shortly before Julie’s murder, asking her “to read it loud so every juror can hear it.” Wiggins read: “I do not think we can truly have a future until all the past is dead.” That line was published in the newspaper the next day.

Next came the investigators. With no physical evidence linking McCrory to the crime, prosecutors emphasized assorted bits of circumstantial evidence, including a question McCrory asked Treadaway, the lead investigator, hours after arriving at the scene: Had Julie died from “the lick on the back of her head”? Could a person look at Julie’s body lying on the floor and discern that there’d been a “lick” on the back of her head? Frank Tipler asked Treadaway. “I couldn’t tell,” Treadaway said. “So whoever asked it had to already know about it, didn’t they?” Tipler said.

On cross-examination, Marsal pointed out that “this lady was lying on the floor in a pool of blood” and “her head was crushed in, wasn’t it?” Yes, Treadaway said, but “you couldn’t see the lick on the back of the head. You could just see her head splattered open.”

Treadaway appeared to know shockingly little about the work that had been done to solve the case or consider alternate suspects. He did not go to Bullard Excavating and question anyone about the murder. “I don’t know who talked to them,” he testified. Nor did Treadaway know anything about the footprint found near the fence. As for Alton Ainsworth, the Bullard employee known to wear a red bandanna, “I’ve heard the name,” Treadaway said.

Garrett, the second investigator, testified about the eight fingerprints he took from the scene, all of which matched either Julie or McCrory. But he did not explain why he lifted prints from the Snoopy and Care Bears glasses while ignoring things like the bedroom windows and the back gate. Marsal asked about the footprint Garrett photographed outside the fence. “Did you ever attempt to compare that with any other print or shoe or any of the employees over at Bullard Construction Company?” “No, sir,” Garrett said.

On the second day of trial, prosecutors called Huey Dewayne Meeks, a 20-year-old with a military haircut who’d been brought back to testify during boot camp with the National Guard. Meeks was staying at his grandfather’s house, diagonal from the McCrory residence, on Friday, May 31. Although it was still dark out when he left for work at 5:15 a.m., Meeks said he noticed McCrory’s Ford Bronco parked outside. He later told his grandfather about it.

On cross-examination, Marsal pointed to a conflicting account Meeks had apparently given police. Didn’t he previously say he might have seen the car on a different day? Meeks admitted that he had. But he reiterated that he saw the Bronco on Friday. His testimony was bolstered by his grandfather, who testified that he too saw the Bronco that morning from his dining room.

“You tell me that’s the guy who did it, and I’ll go into court and say that’s the guy that did it.”

The last and most important witness for the state was Souviron. Earlier that year he had helped win a death sentence against a Florida man named Robert DuBoise, who insisted on his innocence while on trial for rape and murder. At that trial, defense attorneys confronted Souviron with a speech he’d made at a conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, in which he told the audience, “You tell me that’s the guy who did it, and I’ll go into court and say that’s the guy that did it.” Souviron said the remarks had been taken out of context.

Souviron testified that he’d been involved in forensic dentistry since the mid-1960s. “I have had numerous post-graduate courses, but more important I think is the fact that in those days it was a relatively new field and basically I taught most of the courses, and still do,” he said. He estimated that he had testified as an expert in at least 50 cases in up to 14 states. Prosecutors asked for him to be admitted as an expert. “No problem,” said Marsal.

Despite the letter Souviron had written warning that relying solely on the purported bite mark would not be “in the best interest of justice,” Souviron now said that the models and photographs were “good, quality evidence.” He documented his technique in a series of photographs, which he presented to the jury.

One showed a close-up of McCrory’s dental molds positioned over an enlarged photo of the alleged bite mark. “The left cuspid tooth when lined up with the bite fits into that little round puncture wound,” Souviron said. Especially important was the space between the two upper left teeth, which would usually contain another tooth, the lateral incisor. But as Souviron explained, McCrory was missing this tooth — he had been born without it.

Tipler asked a question that allowed Souviron to explain away the missing lower teeth. “Would you classify them as bite marks or teeth marks?” he asked. “That’s a good point,” Souviron replied. “This is not a bite mark. You have just two teeth that show here.” His conclusion: The mark on Julie’s arm “was the result of the arm being thrust into the teeth rather than the teeth being bitten into the arm.”

Souviron’s thrusting-arm theory appeared to conflict with the conclusions of Sapala, the medical examiner, who’d determined that the blows to Julie’s head came first, followed by the puncture injuries. The latter had been inflicted at or near her time of death, he’d found. If Julie had already suffered a mortal injury, it would have been difficult for her to thrust her arm anywhere.

Still, Souviron’s testimony was persuasive. King, the dentist who made McCrory’s dental molds and testified at trial, remembers being somewhat skeptical of Souviron’s analysis. But he could see how a juror would have found the testimony compelling. “If I was on the fence,” King said, “and then they threw those big enlargements of the models and the tissue photographs … and they told you ‘these match perfectly’ … it would be enough to sway you to say he’s guilty.” After all, according to Souviron, McCrory’s dentition was unique enough to make the match a near-mathematical certainty. Only 1 percent of the population would be missing a lateral incisor, he testified. “The percent of the population missing only the upper left lateral incisor is even smaller,” he said. “So my feeling is that there is a high degree of consistency between this set of teeth and those teeth marks left on the arm of Mrs. McCrory.”

The next day, the jury found McCrory guilty. “You have anything to say before I adjudge you guilty of murder?” the judge asked.

“No, sir,” McCrory said. “Other than I just did not do it.”

Illustration

Illustration: Clay Rodery for The Intercept

Hour of Reckoning

It was mid-afternoon when Dr. Adam Freeman was called to testify at McCrory’s evidentiary hearing in April 2021. Freeman was once a true believer in bite-mark evidence and a powerful figure within the American Board of Forensic Odontology, or ABFO, the group that certifies forensic dentists. But that had changed. Now he would be testifying for the defense — and criticizing Souviron, a former mentor.

For Freeman, the journey to Andalusia began on September 11, 2001. He runs a successful dental practice in Westport, Connecticut. Many of his patients commute to New York City for work, and several were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, including one he considered a good friend. Afterward, first responders — including medical examiners and forensic dentists — combed through the rubble to identify victims. The remains of Freeman’s friend were eventually sent home in 13 separate body bags.

He came away from the tragedy wanting to do more. He knew disasters were inevitable. As a dentist, he felt that he could play a valuable role by helping identify victims through dental remains. “If you look at the human experience, I can think of nothing less humanized than to die and … have no identity at death,” he said. “Sort of as my tribute to our patients that were lost, I started to get involved in the forensic field.”

Freeman took a course in forensic pathology, where he met the president of the ABFO, who had run the dental identification unit after the Oklahoma City bombing and worked on the ground after 9/11. Freeman aspired to do the same kind of work; ambitious, with a robust ego, he was determined to become certified by the ABFO, a long and expensive process, and become one of its most elite experts. Before long he was being mentored by some of the field’s most celebrated practitioners, including Dr. David Senn, who had created a fiefdom training forensic dentists at the University of Texas at San Antonio, as well as Souviron, one of Freeman’s earliest champions.

While Freeman originally wanted to do dental identifications, he was quickly drawn into another aspect of the field: bite-mark analysis, or the practice of determining whether a patterned injury on a victim is the result of a bite and can be matched to the dentition of a suspected biter. Looking at images of alleged bite marks, Freeman didn’t always see what his mentors were seeing, but he would listen as they discussed their cases. “You would sit with these guys at dinner … and they would not only talk about it, but then they would be like, ‘And look, here’s my badge,’” he recalled. “‘I’m so good at this the police department or the coroner’s office gave me a badge because I’m helping protect society from these predators.’ And … at first blush, you’re like, ‘Hey, I want to be one of those — I want to be the guy that helps do that.’” In 2009, Freeman earned his certification.

That same year, however, bite-mark analysis was hit with the first of a series of high-profile blows. The National Academy of Sciences published a landmark study of forensic practices that called into question the scientific validity and reliability of nearly every discipline used to convict people and send them to prison. The majority, it found, lacked any scientific underpinning. The authors were especially rough on bite-mark matching. “Although the majority of forensic odontologists are satisfied that bite marks can demonstrate sufficient detail for positive identification,” the report read, “no scientific studies support this assessment.”

Bite-mark analysis rests on a two-pronged foundation. First, that human dentition is unique, like DNA, and second, that skin is a suitable substrate to accurately record that uniqueness. There is no science to back either assertion. In fact, research into the practice has generally revealed the opposite: that human dentition isn’t unique and that skin — as malleable as it is — is a poor medium for preserving an accurate record of injury, all of which renders bite-mark analysis a random and purely subjective practice.

Freeman was rattled by the National Academy of Sciences report. But the reaction of many of his colleagues, including Senn and Souviron, was downright hostile. Over the next decade, they would lash out at their growing number of critics, even attempting to oust one of their own, a California dentist named C. Michael Bowers. Bowers had been ringing the alarm over bite-mark analysis since the late ’90s. After the National Academy of Sciences report echoed his concerns, veteran members of the ABFO concocted a dubious ethics complaint about Bowers, which they filed with the American Academy of Forensic Sciences — the nation’s preeminent umbrella organization for forensic practitioners. The attempt to destroy Bowers’s credibility failed, leading to a public meltdown in 2015, when a furious Souviron confronted the academy’s then-president, Victor Weedn, over the complaint’s dismissal: “Don’t you have any balls?” Souviron demanded. (Weedn said that Souviron later apologized for the outburst.)

That same year brought more trouble for the ABFO — and this time Freeman, now president of the organization, would be in the middle of it. In an attempt to impose standards for practitioners, Freeman and a colleague designed a “construct validity study” focused on the first question forensic dentists should ask: Is this a bite mark? This might seem absurdly basic, but bite-mark analysis rarely starts with ground truth — a victim in a homicide case can’t tell you that they were bitten, so whether any given injury is actually a bite mark is often unknown.

photo of bitemark evidence

A box-opening injury that board-certified odontologists mistakenly identified as a bite mark.

Credit: Courtesy of the Southern Center for Human Rights


“I thought this was going to be super easy,” Freeman said. He and his colleague asked board-certified members to submit images of patterned injuries they’d encountered in real casework. They posted 100 examples online and invited colleagues to review them, including one image they knew for certain was not a bite mark: It was a photo submitted by an odontologist who had injured himself while opening boxes.

“We can’t get this basic piece right, and there are people who have been put to death in Texas based on bite marks.”

The dentists’ answers were all over the place. Sixty percent of the respondents identified the box-opening injury as a bite mark. Freeman was shocked. “The research starts coming in and … for me, it was just so seminal. It was like, wait a second,” he recalled. “We can’t get this basic piece right, and there are people who have been put to death in Texas based on bite marks.”

Freeman was slated to present the results at the 2015 academy conference. But the results were so dismal that the researchers decided to give veteran ABFO members, like Senn, a heads up. According to Freeman, Senn asked him to rerun the study using just the answers supplied by an elite group of veterans, including himself. Freeman agreed — and the results were worse. Then Senn asked him to hold the research altogether. Freeman was adamant that they couldn’t. “And therein lies my downfall,” he said. Senn did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for comment.

Like Bowers before him, Freeman soon found himself the subject of a questionable ethics complaint; it also failed. But it was a turning point for Freeman. He’d seen the truth, he said: Bite-mark analysis was bunk, and he worried about the people it had sent to prison. In 2020, Freeman penned his official resignation from the ABFO. “In my opinion, we have an absolute duty, and ethical obligation to correct our past mistakes,” he wrote. “Diplomates have participated in far too many wrongful convictions resulting in hundreds of years of wrongfully convicted people in prison.”

Their Own Junk Science

In his testimony at McCrory’s hearing, Freeman did not mince words: Souviron had gotten it wrong back at trial. There was no scientific basis for his presumption that the two marks found on Julie’s arm were made by teeth, nor for his conclusion that McCrory’s supposedly unique dentition had made the marks.

And it turns out that Souviron now agrees. “I no longer believe, as I did at the time of trial, that there is a valid scientific basis for concluding that the injury found on the skin of the victim … could be ‘matched’ or otherwise connected to a specific individual, such as Mr. McCrory,” Souviron wrote in his 2019 recantation. “I therefore renounce that testimony.”

Freeman told the court that he was familiar with “several cases” Souviron had gotten wrong over the years. Fabricant, the Innocence Project lawyer, had already mentioned two — including that of DuBoise, the Florida man whom Souviron helped send to death row just months before testifying against McCrory. After decades behind bars, DuBoise was finally exonerated in August 2020.

“Dr. Souviron is a friend. I take absolutely no pleasure in criticizing a man who has helped mentor me, who has championed me, and who quite honestly as a person, I like,” Freeman said. “This is a very uncomfortable position to be put in.”

“And so why are you doing it?” Fabricant asked.

“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he replied.

Freeman said that he didn’t think the marks on Julie’s arm were made by teeth. There was a similar-looking injury near Julie’s armpit that everyone had just ignored. He also noted that it didn’t make sense that a bite mark would be left solely by two upper teeth: “It is almost impossible to create a mark … where you’d only see upper teeth.”

Regardless, the idea that the marks could be matched to anyone in particular was ludicrous. “With just two marks,” Freeman said, “if I had the dental lineup of his Honor and you and anybody else in this courtroom, I would likely make those fit those two marks.”

“It is almost impossible to create a mark … where you’d only see upper teeth.”

Freeman was not alone in his opinion. Also testifying was Dr. Cynthia Brzozowski, a veteran dentist from New York who has been involved in forensics since the early ’90s. When she was starting out, she was “led to believe” that bite-mark analysis was “based on valid science,” she said. Now, like Freeman, she felt she had an “ethical and civic responsibility” to testify in cases like McCrory’s. She agreed that there was no way to conclude that the marks on Julie’s arm were made by teeth in the first place, let alone McCrory’s teeth.

Jeter, the prosecutor, tried to draw a distinction between analyzing a bite mark and analyzing teeth marks, suggesting that what Souviron had done in the McCrory case wasn’t actually bite-mark analysis. Brzozowski was firm: “We don’t have criteria for teeth marks,” she said.

As Jeter went on, she tried to rehabilitate the state’s case by eliciting agreement that Souviron’s testimony was perfectly proper by 1985 “standards” — even though whatever standards did exist back then have been thoroughly disavowed. And then she insinuated that Souviron hadn’t really recanted his trial testimony. Jeter noted that when interviewed by an investigator from the district attorney’s office, Souviron said he still believed that the wound on Julie’s arm was made by teeth, but he would not testify now with the same “high degree of certainty” that they were McCrory’s teeth. Fabricant objected; the state hadn’t called Souviron as a witness, so inserting this thirdhand assertion into evidence was improper. But the judge allowed it.

In fact, Souviron told The Intercept that he didn’t say the things Jeter was ascribing to him. He said he’d been subpoenaed but that the state released him from the obligation prior to the hearing. His interview with the Andalusia law enforcement official had been recorded, he added, so it should be easy to disprove Jeter’s account. “She’s wasting her time,” he said. “If that’s the best she can do, forget it.”

As it turned out, that was about the best Jeter could do. When it was her turn to present evidence that McCrory’s conviction should be upheld, Jeter deployed an odd strategy: She called the DA’s investigator as a witness, and the two of them read into evidence cherry-picked segments from the 1985 trial transcript. Over an objection from Loudon-Brown, McCrory’s lawyer, who pointed out that the judge already had the full record, they included police investigator Billy Treadaway’s description of McCrory asking about the “lick” on the back of Julie’s head. Notably, Jeter omitted Treadaway’s subsequent acknowledgment that it was clear Julie’s head had been “splattered open.”

The point was to portray the original case against McCrory as more substantial than it was and thus able to stand even without Souviron’s definitive testimony. Wrapping up her case, Jeter called the state’s only actual witness at the hearing: Meeks, the National Guard trainee who claimed that he saw McCrory’s Bronco while standing outside his grandfather’s house in the dark almost 36 years earlier.

Now in his late 50s, Meeks had taken off work to appear in court and did not seem happy to be there. But instead of asking him questions about what he’d allegedly seen back in 1985, Jeter asked Meeks to read his previous testimony into the record. Loudon-Brown was quick to protest: “He’s a live witness. He needs to testify from personal knowledge, not some words on a paper.” But again, the judge let Jeter proceed. It did not go well. After Jeter read the questions Meeks was asked at trial, Meeks seemed confused. He abandoned his trial testimony and began answering as if he was being asked the questions anew. Jeter repeatedly cut him off and tried to get him back on script before the judge finally interrupted, changed his previous ruling, and brought the whole sideshow to an end. Before dismissing Meeks, Jeter asked him a single question: Did he stand by his trial testimony? “Yes, ma’am,” he replied.

In closing, Loudon-Brown homed in on the key role that Souviron played in McCrory’s conviction. All the state had was an assortment of weak circumstantial evidence that didn’t add up to much until Souviron got on the stand. “That right there sealed his fate,” Loudon-Brown said. “It was identification testimony. And now that dentist who offered that testimony has said that’s not true.”

He called the judge’s attention to a poster board featuring photos of some of the dozens of individuals wrongfully convicted based on junk bite-mark evidence. “There was evidence at every single one of those peoples’ trials sufficient to convict that person at trial,” he said. “This case is different in one way: There is no other evidence that implicates Mr. McCrory.”

When it was her turn to address the judge, Jeter noted that a conviction could stand on circumstantial evidence alone and that even without Souviron’s expert testimony the jurors could have drawn “reasonable inferences” that McCrory had killed his wife. With that, she launched into a sprawling, fever-dream narrative built wholly on speculation. She suggested that the letters McCrory had exchanged with Wiggins were evidence of a “web of deceit he had woven” and that he needed a way out. The jurors could have concluded that McCrory’s having honked his horn as he left Julie and Chad in the doorway the last evening they were together was “the beginning of his alibi,” Jeter said, a way of announcing to the neighborhood that he was leaving, “that he would not be there when she was murdered later.”

As Jeter’s story rose to a crescendo, she stopped referring to the jurors at all. She described how McCrory had continued his ruse the following morning by calling around pretending to look for Julie when he knew exactly where she was. “He knew she was not answering the phone because she was dead. And he knew that his … child was essentially at home alone, completely unsupervised, with his dead mother,” she said. “But of course, he wouldn’t want to be the first one on the scene. He needed somebody else to find her,” so he tricked his dad into going to the house on Lori Lane.

Jeter eventually turned back to the bite mark, noting that under state law, the jurors could’ve taken the molds of McCrory’s teeth and the photos of Julie’s injury and physically compared them for themselves. “And Judge, they could well have done that with or without Dr. Souviron’s testimony,” she said.

In response, Loudon-Brown noted that the jurors weren’t “allowed to engage in their own junk science.”

theintercept-bitemark_judge-3

Illustration: Clay Rodery for The Intercept

No Winners

The hearing concluded around 6 p.m. Lawyers were given a deadline to submit post-hearing briefs. Beyond that, there was no way to know when the judge would rule.

The next day, Keith Harward sat at a picnic table at a campground and RV park a few miles from downtown Andalusia. He’d traveled for the hearing on behalf of the Innocence Project, only to be kicked out of the courtroom after an angry outburst. “I should know better,” he said. But he couldn’t stand listening to a prosecutor malign a man who had already lost so much of his life to junk science. It reminded him too much of his own case.

Harward spent 34 years behind bars in Virginia after being wrongfully accused of rape and murder on the basis of bite-mark evidence. Now 65, with long white hair and a ZZ Top beard, he had 10-29-83, the date of his conviction, tattooed on his back. Under that was his exoneration date: 4-7-16.

Harward is blunt about the trauma inflicted by his wrongful conviction. “I have all kinds of issues,” he said. To this day, he does not keep glassware in his house. “We didn’t have it in prison,” he said. “I’m afraid of breaking it, getting cut.” And he remains haunted by a sense that his case is never far behind him. “Every day I get up, I’m still waiting for someone to come say, ‘Oh, we made a mistake.’”

“Every day I get up, I’m still waiting for someone to come say, ‘Oh, we made a mistake.’”

Harward’s fate might easily have been different. It was only because of the Innocence Project’s ability to secure new evidence testing in his case that DNA emerged pointing to the real perpetrator, which convinced the Virginia attorney general to support Harward’s exoneration. Like most people convicted of crimes based on junk science, McCrory did not have DNA evidence on his side.

Had the physical evidence in his case been preserved, McCrory might well have been able to clear his name. Several years ago, McCrory’s son, Chad, got access to the evidence room at the courthouse, where he recalled seeing a bag with fingernail clippings, as well as a nightgown, presumably the one his mother had been wearing when she was killed. Chad later told his father’s trial attorney Larry Grissett, who thought the materials might reveal DNA. But when Grissett visited the evidence room himself, the items were gone. Only the dental mold remained.

A few months after the evidentiary hearing, in July 2021, Lanier, the former Covington County DA, arrived at Grissett’s law office in downtown Opp, some 15 miles west of Andalusia. A buck’s head was mounted on the wall opposite a fireplace topped with family photos. Lanier had brought a box of freshly baked donuts, which he shared with his former adversary. Although they had been on opposite sides of McCrory’s trial in 1985, the lawyers agreed on at least one thing. No matter how the judge might rule now, “there are no winners,” Grissett said. “No, there are no winners,” Lanier said. “And the community lost — they lost a good man and, of course, a good woman.”

Now in his late 70s, Lanier wore sneakers and flip-up shades over his prescription eyeglasses. He’d lost reelection shortly after McCrory’s conviction, following a tenure marked by his own run-ins with the law. In 1987 Lanier was convicted of assaulting a state trooper who pulled him over for reckless driving. But the former DA’s record paled in comparison to that of Harvey Tipler, one of the private prosecutors who convicted McCrory. After being jailed in Florida on multiple charges, including racketeering and prostitution for soliciting sex from clients, Tipler was convicted in 2013 for trying to have a state prosecutor murdered. He’s currently serving 30 years in prison.

“I have a clear conscience,” Lanier said. It was the Tiplers who’d handled the bite-mark evidence, he added. Regardless, he said he still believed in McCrory’s guilt. But Grissett felt differently. All these decades later, he remained disturbed by the case. “I think about it a lot, and it worries me,” he said. Grissett doesn’t believe that Ainsworth, the Bullard employee who was convicted of rape, was the real killer. But he was adamant that there were alternate leads and suspects that remain unexplored.

Grissett remained indignant over Souviron’s role at trial. “Listen, not only was that junk science, but Dr. Souviron was untruthful,” he said. As Grissett recalled, he and his co-counsel, Marsal, had asked Souviron just before he testified whether he could truly claim definitively that the mark matched McCrory’s teeth. Souviron said no. But when he got on the stand moments later, Souviron essentially said the opposite. The trial transcript supports Grissett’s recollection. An agitated Marsal had confronted Souviron. “Did you not tell us during the break that you could not tell if these teeth marks were made by Charles McCrory?” he demanded. Souviron said he’d told them it was “not positive for Charles McCrory.” He could not exclude everyone else in the world. “We were shocked,” Grissett said.

On February 14, 2022, Judge Short finally handed down his ruling. It adopted verbatim the state’s proposed order, which argued that McCrory would have been convicted even without Souviron’s testimony. The ruling cited the eyewitness testimony from Meeks and his grandfather, along with McCrory’s questions about the “lick” on the back of Julie’s head. Perhaps most preposterously, the judge endorsed the argument that jurors at McCrory’s trial could have done their own bite-mark analysis. “The jury could have made the physical comparison between the injury to the victim’s arm and the mold of the defendant’s teeth on their own,” Short wrote.

Grissett was unsurprised by the ruling. “There was no way the judge was gonna grant this,” he said. “I mean, he’s a really good guy, he is. But he is really, really conservative.” In Alabama, judges are elected, he pointed out. “So, you know, they’re politicians also.”

Still, Grissett flatly rejected the notion that jurors would have convicted McCrory. “There was not enough evidence to find him guilty without Souviron. That’s the only evidence that directly connected him.” As for the idea that the jurors could do their own forensic analysis, let alone apply junk science, “it’s ludicrous,” he said.

Grissett is not alone in his opinion. Just a few weeks after the 2021 hearing, Loudon-Brown met with Harvey Tipler in prison. In a subsequent court filing, he wrote that in Tipler’s recollection, “the bite mark evidence ‘clearly was’ the reason for the conviction, and his father, Frank Tipler, thought so too.” Tipler also told Loudon-Brown that Jeter’s theory of the crime was not the one they presented at trial. For them, the bite mark was “key,” he said.

In a statement, Fabricant and Loudon-Brown called the decision “a tragic failure of law.” They will appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. “Almost 10 months after the evidentiary hearing at which all experts agreed the injury to the decedent was not a bite mark, the judge signed four pages of findings written by the prosecutors and denied a new trial,” they said. “This was despite the prosecution’s own expert recanting his trial testimony and admitting, in agreement with the entirety of the scientific community, that this kind of evidence has no place in the criminal courts.”