Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Railroaded By Forensic Experts: Freed by DNA

In 1992, Kennedy Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death in Noxubee County Mississippi. He was accused of raping and killing a 3-year-old girl. Levon Brooks, was sentenced to life in prison for a separate but similar crime, the rape and murder of another 3-year old child. The Noxubee County Sheriff flippantly stated that a possible DNA match could not be sought on either case due to Mississippi’s lack of a DNA database -- this revelation was news to Mississippi’s crime lab director.

Ten years passed before both men were cleared of any involvement in the crimes. The actual perpetrator, Albert Johnson, confessed to both homicides. To top it off, DNA evidence supported Johnson’s confession. Despite the confession and the new evidence, and in defiance of all common rationality, both men spent an additional 5 years awaiting retrial in local jails. This was due to the fact that Forrest Allgood, the Noxubee County prosecutor, was anxious to bring back his star witnesses, medical examiner Steven Hayne, and forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West.

For two decades, Hayne has been responsible for about 80% of the autopsies conducted in the state of Mississippi. On April 8, 2008, the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project collaborated on a formal allegation calling for the revocation of Haynes license to continue practicing medicine. The 1000-page document cited evidence of misconduct and fraudulent testimony that has sent an undetermined number of innocent people to prison, and in some cases, death row.

By many accounts, Michael West is even worse than Hayne. His bite mark testimony has already been disproven by DNA in various instances other than the Brewer and Brooks cases. Consequently, West resigned from professional odontology groups in order to avoid sanctions and possible expulsion.

In an unprecedented move, under pressure from The Innocence Project, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood revoked the county’s prosecutorial authority and paved the way for the exonerations of Brewer (February 2008) and Brooks (March 2008). Speaking for The Innocence Project, Peter Neufeld stated, "In two decades of working on these cases, we have never seen a more stark and troubling example of a rush to judgment at the hands of notorious forensic analysts who conspired to commit fraud."

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.

March 21, 2012

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