In 1992, Levon Brooks received a life sentence for the 1990 sexual assault and murder of a 3-year-old girl in rural Noxubee County, Mississippi. In 1995, Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to death for committing a similar crime in the same county—so similar, in fact, that it should have raised questions about the validity of Brooks’ conviction. Both men were innocent, yet they spent years of their lives in prison, until finally, in 2008, they were exonerated by DNA evidence. The murders were actually committed by Justin Albert Johnson, a convicted sex offender who lived near both victims. Oddly, Johnson had been a suspect in both of these cases, but each time, Johnson was excluded as a suspect because of the forensic evidence of Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West.
In The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, Radley Balko, a Washington Post reporter, and Tucker Carrington, the director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law, meticulously detail the absurd lengths to which Hayne and West would go to clinch guilty verdicts in hundreds of cases. If the stakes were not so high, Hayne’s and West’s shenanigans would seem nearly comical. But as Balko and Carrington make clear, Hayne and West were both the symptom and the product of a criminal justice system tainted by racism, cronyism and corruption.
This is a true crime story, but it is more than a report of the tragic murders of two young girls. The crime at the center of this book is the one committed by a justice system that is more concerned with conviction rates than unearthing the truth, by a state with a history of using incarceration to subjugate black men, and by two men whose greed and hubris blinded them to the lives they ruined. Compellingly written, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is a chilling reminder of what happens to the rule of law when the law forgets the rules.