As I mentioned in Sum it Up! #57, I am reading up on forensic odontology. I came across this book “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist.” A quick glance told me it was about the wrongful convictions of both Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. They were wrongfully convicted when two girls (both three years old) were raped and murdered in Mississippi. Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were eventually exonerated in 2008.
When I tweeted that I was going to read this book some of my followers warned me that I was in for a hell of a roller-coaster. They were not kidding.
I can honestly say that there are very few books that have made me want to throw them around the room from sheer frustration. This one did. It took me a while to write a review too.
Just to be clear, I highly recommend reading this book. It tells you all about the Brooks and Brewer wrongful convictions. But it does so much more. And it is the “more” that got to me.
Balko and Carrington start with explaining why wrongful convictions happen. They discuss in detail the Brooks and Brewer cases including who the real perpetrator is and why education matters when you hold a public office. They explain the animus between coroners and the medical community and why the scientific community steered clear from the courts and the criminal justice system for so long.
Balko and Carrington show you how inadequate Mississippi’s medicolegal justice system was and still is. A lack of qualified staff definitely plays a huge role (as it still does today) however, the cozy relationship between coroners, law enforcement, and the prosecution did nothing but hinder justice. All this intensified during the Civil Rights Era. Poverty, cronyism, structural racism, and at best an antiquated system made sure that people like Hayne and West could rise to the top.
In “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist,” we get an overview about the Brooks and Brewer cases and their trials. At the center: bite-mark evidence. Even if this was a real new science, it played a role in a system that aimed to keep the status quo. It didn’t aim to seek justice.
Keeping the status quo had more negative results for Mississippi. One of the consequences of not having a reliable mediolegal system is a lack of statistical data about causes of death, accidents, diseases, industrial poisoning, etc. In other words, it affected everything from urban planning to agricultural development.
Levon Brooks served 16 years in Mississippi prisons for the 1990 rape-murder of Courtney Smith (3) he didn’t commit. Brooks became a suspect because he was an ex-boyfriend of Smith’s mother. Brooks’ defense attorneys presented alibi defense (Brooks was at work), disputed that Brooks had the opportunity to commit this crime, and of course, challenged West’s credentials and bite-mark findings. After deliberating for about nine hours, the jury convicted Brooks of capital murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Released in 2008, the fight to clear his name continued. Brooks died in January 2018 after suffering from colon cancer for the past five years.
In 1992, Kennedy Brewer was arrested for the rape-murder of Christine Jackson (3), his girlfriend’s daughter. After waiting in jail for three years for the trial to begin, Brewer was convicted of capital murder. In 2001, DNA proved he did not commit the crime. His conviction was overturned. The prosecutors intended to retry Brewer so he stayed incarcerated for five more years until he was finally released on bail in August 2007. Brewer became the first person to be exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in Mississippi. He had served seven years on death row and eight years in jail awaiting trial.
The real rapist-killer
In 2007, the Innocence Project’s investigations led to the real perpetrator: Justin Albert Johnson. This is a man with a history of sexual assaults against girls and women and he was a neighbour of the Smith Family. DNA linked Johnson to Christine Jackson’s murder. Sadly, evidence from Courtney Smith’s murder was too degraded to be tested. However, when Johnson was arrested in February 2008, he confessed to both crimes. He also assured police he acted alone in both crimes.
Hayne and West
There is a lot online about these two men. Together they played a huge role in many wrongful convictions in Mississippi.
Stephen Hayne does no longer work as medical examiner but performed thousands of questionable autopsies in his long career. During those autopsies he cut corners by not enforcing safety precautions, improperly labeling evidence, neglecting chemical and biological materials’ safety protocols, and by performing autopsies in a line-up. The latter of course opens up all autopsies to cross contamination.
From the NY Times: “A physician and pathologist, Dr. Hayne, now 71, began performing autopsies in Mississippi in the late 1980s. He served briefly as interim state medical examiner though he was not, as state law required, board certified in forensic pathology. From 1989, when he left the interim post, to 2010, the office of medical examiner was unfilled for all but five years. Dr. Hayne, working as a private contractor, almost single-handedly picked up the slack. By his own count, he performed as many as 1,700 autopsies some years, in addition to having his own pathology practice. Dr. David Fowler, the chief medical examiner in Maryland and a former chairman of the standards committee for the National Association of Medical Examiners, called the number “beyond defensible.”
After testifying in nearly 100 criminal cases, Michael West now renounced bite-mark analysis but not before he proudly told the courts about his ultraviolet photography method that finds bite-marks on skin even months later.
From the Washington Post: “In the early to mid-1990s, Michael West became a rock star in the world of forensics. West claimed to have developed techniques that he and only he could perform. According to West, those techniques could both identify bite marks on human skin that no other medical specialists could see, and then match those marks to one person, to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. West helped put lots of people in prison.”
Nobody seemed to doubt his wisdom or checked with other experts whether this man was correct. West became a pioneer in Mississippi. His expertise eventually included bite-mark analysis, gunshot reconstructions, blood stain analysis, trace metal analysis, cigarette burns, and shaken baby syndrome.
If you are interested in wrongful convictions you can find several cases here on my blog (check the category miscarriages of justice). Also check the page of the Innocence Project where you can find wrongful convictions nationwide. Another good source is the National Registry of Exonerations. As of writing, there are 2182 exonerations meaning people have lost more than 18’750 years of their lives.
This books is a must-read for anyone truly interested in justice.