When two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi in 1990, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in the state’s notorious Parchman Farm penitentiary before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.
How could something like this happen? At least two men who built successful careers on the back of this condemnable system were responsible: Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West. For nearly two decades, Dr. Hayne, a state medical examiner, performed the vast majority of Mississippi’s autopsies, while his friend Dr. West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades and “bite mark specialist.” The duo became prosecutors’ go-to experts for a speedy conviction—and Brewer and Brooks were just two of their countless victims. Their wrongful convictions lie at the intersection of the most pressing problems facing this country’s criminal justice system: structural injustice built on the historic foundation of race and class, and the much more contemporary but equally egregious problem of invalid forensic science. The old problem is inextricably entangled with and exacerbates the new.
Radley Balko is an investigative journalist and reporter at the Washington Post. He currently writes and edits The Watch, covering civil liberties and the criminal justice system. He is the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces. Tucker Carrington is the director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He has worked as a criminal defense lawyer for his entire legal career.