Between them, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks served more than 30 years in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. Brewer was sentenced to death, Brooks to life without parole. The crimes for which each was convicted are remarkably similar: A female toddler was abducted from her home, raped, murdered, and abandoned in the woods. In each case, Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood decided early on that the boyfriend of the girl’s mother was the culprit. In each case, he asked Dr. Steven Hayne to perform the autopsy. And in each case, Dr. Hayne called in Dr. Michael West to perform some analysis of bite marks on the children. West claimed to have found bite marks that had been missed by other medical professionals and then testified in court that he could definitively match these marks to the teeth of the men Allgood suspected of committing the murders.
In each case, West was wrong. Two weeks ago, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced that police had arrested 51-year-old Albert Johnson for the toddlers’ murders. Johnson’s DNA matched that found at the scene in both crimes. And according to Hood, when confronted with the evidence, Johnson confessed to both crimes. Brewer and Brooks were released from prison last week. These may turn out to be the first in a string of exonerations we’ll see coming out of Mississippi. For the last 20 years, the state’s criminal autopsy system has been in disrepair. Nearly every institution in the state has failed to do anything about it.