Thursday, March 6, 2008

Innocence in Mississippi

Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks are living proof of the importance of competence in our criminal justice system. CNN sets the scene:
At a small-town courthouse in one of rural Mississippi's poorest counties, Dr. Michael West swore under oath that a dead girl had bite marks all over her body and that they were made by the two front teeth of the man charged with murdering her.

Dr. West had appeared in numerous Mississippi trials as a paid forensic odontology expert for the prosecution.On that day in 1995, jurors found his testimony credible enough to convict Kennedy Brewer of raping and murdering a 3-year-old girl with little to no other evidence. Mr. Brewer was sentenced to death.

Three years prior, Dr.West testified in an eerily similar rape-and-murder case involving another 3-year-old girl from the same town. Dr. West testified that bite marks that were found on the victim's wrist were made by Levon Brooks. Mr. Brooks was also found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The crimes they were charged with were not the only thing Brooks and Brewer had in common.Both defendants were accused of raping and murdering their girlfriend's child. Both defendants were from Brooksville. Both defendants were poor. Both defendants were African-American. And both defendants were innocent.

Earlier this month[February], Justin Albert Johnson, a 51-year-old Brooksville man who had been a suspect early on, was arrested and charged in one of the murders. Investigators said he confessed to both killings after DNA analysis proved that his semen was in the victim in the Brewer case.

An investigation by an Innocence Project panel of forensic odontologists from England, Canada, and the United States confirmed that the bite marks on the victims were likely the result of small insects, decomposition, and rough handling when the bodies were recovered. The panel itself did not explicitly make a charge of intentional wrong-doing on the part of Dr.West, but multiple panel participants stated that they did not understand how these marks could have reasonably been confused with human bite marks. These findings have opened the possibility of a criminal investigation against Dr. West, who prosecutors say has not been used as an expert witness since the mid-1990s. The public and various advocacy groups are also calling for review of all cases in Dr. West worked on.

Brewer and Brooks spent more than a decade of their life in jail for crimes they did not commit, while a child rapist and murderer remained free. Given the complete incompetence and possible corruption of this "expert", there could be dozens more innocent men behind bars and dozens more criminals roaming the streets under the radar. Their story reminds us that we must get involved with our local governments and let them know that incompetence and lack of oversight will not go unnoticed.

For more information, check out the Innocence Blog

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