For a couple of decades in Mississippi’s not-too-distant past, a shady medical examiner and a dishonest dentist made a handsome living off the dead as free-wheeling forensic witnesses.
“…A truly enterprising showman, one with some charisma and some bravado, might push the boundaries,” co-authors Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington write in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South. “He might go beyond fudging test results or tweaking lab reports. He might invent new disciplines from whole cloth, concoct new methods of analysis, and claim expertise and powers of observation that only he possesses—all of which he could offer up to help law enforcement officials solve crimes and win convictions.”
The ignominious exploits of former Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne, M.D., and Dr. Michael West, D.D.S., are now well-known: They routinely lied about injuries sustained by homicide victims, resulting in thousands of convictions. But their repugnant rise has never been as compellingly presented as by investigative journalist Balko (Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces, 2013) and lawyer Carrington, director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi.
Kirkus calls The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist “a horrifying exposé of how a few individuals can infect an entire state’s criminal justice system.” It’s insightful, intense, and riveting.
“This is a book about structural racism,” says Balko, who lives in Tennessee and spoke with Carrington and Kirkus by phone. “It doesn’t matter what the motivations of individual actors are when you’ve got this framework of a system created during the Jim Crow era for a very specific purpose.”
The same judicial system that respected the fraudulent authority of Hayne and West, who are white, wrongly convicted and incarcerated Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, who are black, for murders in the early 1990s. (The crimes were committed by the same white man, Justin Johnson, who, in both cases, was questioned and released.)
It took little more than the damning testimonies of Hayne and West to send Brooks and Brewer to prison. It took a decade’s worth of advances in DNA technology to exonerate them, finally, in 2007.
“Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were felled by seriously flawed forensics, an anachronistic medicolegal system built on structural racism, and a criminal justice system dependent on both,” they write. “They were failed by the bar, the media, the state appeals courts, the federal courts, the medical profession, and the field of forensics.”
“One of the things we were trying to get across,” Carrington says, “is the architecture for these wrongful convictions, and the ability to miss the true perpetrator, was not just in place but exacerbated through the [the 1990s-2000s], because the legislature was not funding the medical examiner’s office”—among other reasons cited in the book.
“It just so happens that Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer and Steve Hayne and Mike West...end up being the characters in this story,” he says. “It would have been somebody else, had it not been them, because the scene was set for something like this to happen.”
Ultimately, Balko and Carrington call for a systematic review of every trial in which Hayne and West testified. And they hope readers, especially those in politics and policymaking, will be inspired to take individual action to address similar injustices in their home states.
“A lot about the story is very uniquely Mississippi,” says Balko, who covers criminal justice nationwide, “but the broader themes apply just about anywhere.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and the co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked. The photo of Tucker Carrington immediately above is by Kevin Bain.