Forensic odontology

Forensic odontology is a branch of forensic science that deals with the handling, examination, and presentation of dental evidence in court. Information from the study of teeth usually involves identifying the person, assessing the age of the victim and signs of violence. Odontology is done with the help of dental records, including photographs, radiographs and ante mortem and post mortem reports.

Odontology — more commonly known as forensic dentistry — has identified the dogs that fatally mauled 2-year-old Ja’Marr Tiller last month in his East Cooper back yard.

But absent any new evidence, no science is likely to point out which — if any — humans can be held liable for the boy’s death, investigators said Tuesday.

Many questions remain unanswered concerning Ja’Marr’s death, Charleston County Coroner Rae Wooten and County Sheriff Al Cannon said at a joint press conference.

The coroner’s and sheriff’s offices are probing the boy’s death “cooperatively and independently,” Wooten said, adding the state Attorney General’s Office and the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office have been consulted concerning the case and applicable laws.

It has not been possible, at least so far, to find probable cause to charge anyone in the boy’s death, Cannon said. Any charges may depend on the coroner’s findings, he said.

Wooten said she’s considering convening a coroner’s inquest as part of the search for answers.

Authorities believe Ja’Marr was attacked about 8 p.m. May 27 after he somehow slipped through a doorway at his home in the 2700 block of U.S. Highway 17 near Mount Pleasant and was mauled in his backyard.

Wooten said that until recently, authorities were certain only that the toddler was killed by “some sort of animal.” Two female Lab-shepherd mixes suspected of having made the fatal bites have been in Charleston Animal Society pens since the incident. The science of Odontology has now connected the dogs to the attack, she said.

Odontology findings Wooten said forensic dentists that usually deal with human bite marks studied photos and impressions of animal bites found on Ja’Marr. The bite marks were compared with plaster casts made of the dogs’ teeth while they were sedated.

“We are able to say the impressions are consistent” with the bite marks on the boy, Wooten said. She said that although Odontology could not absolutely rule out that other dogs might have been involved in the attack, the tests concluded that both of the dogs in custody bit the boy multiple times.

“We are able to say that both dogs were involved. He was bitten more than once by both dogs,” she said. She said it was not possible to say what triggered the dogs’ attack or which dog bit the boy first.

“Many questions we will never have the answers to,” she said.

Cannon, who expressed support for an inquest, said his investigators are also dealing with matters difficult or impossible to resolve.

Among the complexities of the case, he said, is the fact that no one claims ownership of the dogs. Someone in Ja’Marr’s household had fed the dogs before, as had another family in the area. “The dogs roamed freely in the area,” and neither family considered the dogs to be theirs, Cannon said.

“They were not family pets, but stray dogs that had been fed,” Cannon said. He said among the legal issues is what exactly constitutes ownership of a dog.

He said no decision has been made concerning the dogs’ future.

Because there are no known eyewitnesses to the incident, Cannon said investigators don’t know how long the boy was outside, what prompted the attack or how long it lasted.

Ja’Marr’s mother, Deandra Tiller, was away running errands at the time the boy wandered outside and was attacked, Cannon said. The boy’s grandmother and an aunt and uncle were in the home, but none apparently were aware the boy was gone or had been attacked, he said.

Ja’Marr was found when Tiller arrived home around 8:30 p.m. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Family cooperativeCannon said the boy’s family has been cooperative with investigators, and nothing linking the case to drugs or alcohol has been found. But, he said, there was no consensus among family members concerning who was supposed to be watching the child while his mother was way.

It’s not known exactly how the boy left the house or how long he’d been outside when attacked. “We have been getting conflicting statements as to where the child was” at various times, he added.

Cannon said that although a 2-year-old boy was killed by a dog in April in Dorchester County, fatal dog attacks on people are rare. He said there are some similarities between the Charleston and Dorchester cases, but there are important differences, too.

The Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office charged 28-year-old Quintin McGrew with illegal neglect of a child after the death of his son. But, Cannon said, in the Charleston County case it’s much more difficult to assume someone is criminally liable.

Though he didn’t number differences, some of them include: the Charleston County attack occurred outside the home, with several adults each unsure who was in charge being in the home, and with roaming, unclaimed dogs being blamed. The Dorchester attack took place inside a home, with a newly adopted family pet to blame, and with one adult, the boy’s father, being home, although sleeping.

Inquest decisionWooten said she’ll decide within weeks whether to convene an inquest, in which a jury of six would hear testimony under oath. An inquest “can be a very, very valuable tool and frequently brings forth a lot of new information.” The jury’s verdict is not binding on the coroner’s or sheriff’s offices, she added.

She said the inquest would be for the purpose of clarifying and airing issues surrounding the death. Witnesses can bring attorneys, but attorneys’ powers to object to inquest testimony are limited, she said. Wooten said her job is to represent the interests of the deceased.

“I speak for Ja’Marr,” she said.

She said she hopes the investigations “will have some sort of positive outcome,” and will perhaps “raise awareness of our responsibilities as parents.”

Reach Edward C. Fennell at 937-5560.