The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

A True Story of Injustice in the American South

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Pub Date 27 Feb 2018 | Archive Date 27 Feb 2018

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A shocking and deeply reported account of the persistent plague of institutional racism and junk forensic science in our criminal justice system, and its devastating effect on innocent lives

After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist recounts the story of how the criminal justice system allowed this to happen, and of how two men, Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West, built successful careers on the back of that structure. For nearly two decades, Hayne, a medical examiner, performed the vast majority of Mississippi's autopsies, while his friend Dr. West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades. Together they became the go-to experts for prosecutors and helped put countless Mississippians in prison. But then some of those convictions began to fall apart.

Here, Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington tell the haunting story of how the courts and Mississippi's death investigation system -- a relic of the Jim Crow era -- failed to deliver justice for its citizens. The authors argue that bad forensics, structural racism, and institutional failures are at fault, raising sobering questions about our ability and willingness to address these crucial issues.
A shocking and deeply reported account of the persistent plague of institutional racism and junk forensic science in our criminal justice system, and its devastating effect on innocent lives


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I received a DIGITAL Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. From the publisher -
After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.
The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist chronicles how the courts and Mississippi's death investigation system--a relic of the Jim Crow era--failed to deliver justice for its citizens and recounts the horrifying story of the two men who built successful careers on the back of this system. For nearly two decades, medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne performed the vast majority of Mississippi's autopsies, while his friend Dr. Michael West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades. Together they became the go-to experts for prosecutors and helped put countless Mississippians in prison. But then some of those convictions began to fall apart. Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington argue that bad forensics, structural racism, and institutional failures are at fault, and raise sobering questions about our criminal justice system's ability to address them.

This book made me so freaking angry --- my blood just boiled at times. These men sent down my total incompetent "experts" will never get their lives back, or make up for lost time ... yet this happened time and time again. I am sure false convictions have sent thousands to jail/death row/execution and that more will happen. This is a tragedy and a travesty ... and I so enjoyed this book that I have already decided to buy a hard copy for my law-junkie husband. Five amazing stars.

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The stories in this book would be rejected for a procedural crime show for being too absurd and over the top. Yet, these stories happened, and lives were ruined by incompetence, ignorance, and hatred. It is heart wrenching to know how long these two individuals were allowed to practice their shoddy methods, making a mockery of the criminal justice system in Mississippi.

The authors do an excellent job researching the topic, and certainly do justice to the numerous victims of these men. Of course, it is not just these two men at fault here. There is blatant racism, poor oversight, a flawed judicial system, greed, apathy, intentional ignorance, and corruption adding to the mistreatment of suspects in Mississippi. This book is more compelling because it is the reality faced by individuals in Mississippi for decades. How this occurred for this long, unchecked and unrepentant is baffling.

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It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.
- James Baldwin, No name in the Street

This is a very sobering book about how racism, bad forensics, institutionalization and a faulty criminal justice system in Mississippi put hundreds of innocent people behind bars.

Two three-year-old girls were taken from their homes, sexually assaulted and murdered in rural Mississippi. Of course, this was an outrage, but what is also a crime is that law enforcement officials at the time pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together these two men served a combined thirty years in prison. Thirty years that they will not get back. Thirty years that they were robbed of while the real killer went free. Also, two children died horrifically. Where is the justice when the wrong people are convicted and placed in jail?

The Jim Crow south was alive and well in Mississippi. This book chronicles how two men made a living off this corrupt system. Dr. Steven Hayne performed autopsy after autopsy - more than any other coroner. He often bragged that he never took a vacation let alone a day off...but how can one take a day off when you are so busy with "coroner obstruction." How his friend, local dentist, Dr. Michael West became a forensic expert especially when it came to human bite analysis. Their works was rushed, often unprofessional and not keeping with forensic standards. Using evidence form embalmed bodies, citing wrong causes of death, etc. It was appalling to see how unprofessional they were and, yet they were used the most by prosecutors.

It is evident that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book. I was shocked to see the dates of many occurrences of such breeches of not only common decency but professionalism in the criminal justice system. How state senator Robert Crook, one of Mississippi's most powerful lawmakers once said "We just cut her tits off. She wont be coming here trying to tell us what to do anymore." in regards to Faye Spruill, a female medical examiner. Dr. Spruill was the first woman in the country to be named an official state medical examiner. The good ole boys in Mississippi did not like a fiery woman telling them how to do the job.

Racism, ignorance, bad forensics, crooked officials, and inept doctors and lawyers are at fault. How are these issues addressed? How do you fix a system that is so badly broken? How do you give back time that has been stolen from someone's life? How do you explain to a family who lost their child that the real killer got to walk free for so many years without facing justice?

Thank you to Perseus Books, Public Affairs and NetGalley who provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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ok...can I give it 6 stars? I have been reading for a lot of years...and very seldom have gushed about a book..."It" by Stephen King..."Time to Kill" by John Grisham...but a true crime book...even though true crime is one of my favorite genres to read...I can't say I ever gushed about one...but this one I am...there may be spoilers be warned... but since we know this is true crime...we all know where most of this goes...ok...

I have been reading and watching not just true crime but specifically true crime where defendants are this book drew my attention when I first saw it...but I had no idea of the ride I was about to start...

I read this book... stunned to see the numbers that were given concerning the state of Mississippi... the system seems to have had so many incompetent people as coroners who had the ability to decide if a death should be investigated a murder...if it is couldn't be a murder...and when there was a murder...the vast majority of autopsies were performed by one man...who remarkably could give testimony on pretty much any aspect of a murder ...blood spatter...access the murder happened...his genius never ended...the prosecutors loved him...the judges loved him...he could say or document one thing...then upon further work this could be changed to meet what they needed...tissue samples disappeared ...oops sorry...didn't note there were marks on the body originally? oops sorry...everything was just like I said...just trust me...they could then bring in a "Bite mark expert" who somehow could find teeth marks on just about anybody who was murdered (evidently people in Mississippi are mostly cannibals or at least the murderers are) and specifically only the upper not really bites but just resting places for the upper plate....he could find bite marks by his own designed special technique saying that only he can see it...and the juries and courts ate it could anyone be so stupid???? I see so many wrongful convictions being corrected ..sometimes...there is just going to be wrongful convictions but these should be the rare case...not the rule...then to compound matters...even when these two "experts" were basically discredited...the court system and the prosecutors will not open up cases from the past of these many people sit in jail...some on death row...knowing that their testimony was fabricated best...poor science to no can this happen in a country where we should be striving to always be the most meticulous? ...and the most sure?...I am appalled ...and sickened...I am hoping that this book will lead to better things in Mississippi and throughout the country...I know this topic is huge right now...but at the same time I have hope...It is small...when prosecutors will be confronted by proof ...DNA proof... that the person they convicted was not this person...but will say...well...they could have still been could santa clause...but its doubtful...whatever happened to reasonable doubt? I know that i have heard that when they center on someone they have no reason to keep looking...but you just can't make the evidence meet what you have to follow where the evidence leads...and this book shows this is not even close to what happens...This book is a scary eye opener...but an amazing read...I give it the highest rating... My review on goodreads appears here.

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No one would believe this as a movie, I found it hard to believe as a book. It scares me to think that it happened and since the same hatred based on class and race OF ALL KINDS is prevalent today it will happen again. This book is depressing but a needed warning that even after 30 years the flames of man's hatred continues to burn

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In an enlightening forward to this newest look at the American justice process gone awry, John Grisham, who serves on the board of directors of the Innocence Project in New York, lays out the eight reasons that tend to lead to wrongful convictions. This is a topic that's gotten a lot of play recently, from a string of other books to TV series and podcasts. From there, we're off on an examination of two men who built up a lucrative business between themselves, as well as boosting their own reputations, while sending an overwhelming number of innocents to prison and sometimes, their deaths.

If finding out how and why that happened isn't enough to make you want to read this book, I don't know what is.

For twenty years, medical examiner Steven Hayne and his friend, dentist Michael West, ran a racket in Mississippi, with Dr. Hayne performing the majority of the state's autopsies, and West being called in to supply forensic odontology services when Hayne discovered potential bite marks on murder victims' bodies, or when prosecution suspected certain marks could be from human teeth. In the process, the two

The book examines in detail two cases the pair collaborated on to secure convictions, those of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Both men were tried, sentenced and imprisoned for the rapes and murders of two three-year-old girls. Neither were guilty, in fact one perpetrator was responsible for both of these similar crimes.

Both of their crimes and Hayne's and West's roles in them are detailed, so we can see how the two sprang into action when the potential to earn income as expert witnesses for the prosecution arises. As small introductory examples of their "work" - Hayne performed autopsies in droves, completing many times more than other medical examiners and beyond the legal allowance. West regularly identified insect activity evidence as bite marks, and created molds of suspects' teeth that he then used to actually insert bite marks into skin in the guise of seeing the two patterns matched.

Hayne didn't merely bring West on as a consultant and then turn the analysis over to him; he deferred to West in his report. The two were essentially in business together. They advertised themselves to law enforcement agencies in two states. The process they used to tie Brooks to Courtney Smith's murder had become their modus operandi: Hayne would find suspicious marks, conclude they were bite marks, and then bring West in to "match" them to the chief suspect. It's a process they had repeated before, and would repeat over and over again.

The book also includes a history of coroners, to help better understand the broken system the two men were able to successfully exploit for two decades. "The popular conception of the coroner's physician was a broken-down, alcoholic wreck unfit to treat the living, or a sociopathic personality who preferred the company of the dead. It was hardly the company a talented young physician would care to join."

Despite the relatively low pay of the state positions in forensic pathology, a doctor willing to bend the profession's guidelines to help supply meet demand could make good money. There are quite a few places across the country where that's exactly what happened - where doctors have willingly performed significantly more autopsies than the field's governing bodies recommend. But nowhere did it happen on the scale it did in Mississippi.

Something very significant to the doctors' dirty work, and that I was (naively?) surprised to learn, was that bite mark analysis and other forms of "pattern analysis," like blood spatter, aren't really scientific. They're pattern recognition.

Bite mark analysis, along with fields like tire tread analysis, "tool mark" matching, blood spatter analysis, and even fingerprint analysis, all belong to a class of forensics called "pattern matching." These fields are problematic because although they're often presented to juries as scientific, they're actually entirely subjective.

I now cringe if I see bite mark or blood spatter analysis mentioned on Forensic Files or the like. It makes you aware how much these come into play in murder cases, how heavily they're relied upon - knowing they can be manipulated and abused at worse, and are shoddy imitations of real science science at best, with little differentiation or clarification for juries, is certainly troublesome. Granted, West had severely unscrupulous methods for using and manipulating bite mark analysis, so we can only hope that others aren't getting away with the same abuses, but the possibility even existing is what's horrifying.

West was retained by law enforcement and proved most useful to them after they'd already identified a suspect. Then he'd simply twist the evidence by doing things like finding marks on the body that had been previously overlooked and attributing them to bites, throw in some medical jargon and pseudoscientific speak, and turn on charm during a jury trial to bring the whole thing home. "West confirms whatever suspicions the police have," someone else puts it succinctly elsewhere. He got paid enormously well for his prep and testimony time, and there you have it.

A Mississippi defense attorney is quoted, "No district attorney in the Deep South stands a chance of reelection if a murder occurs in his or her jurisdiction and somebody does not wind up in prison for it." We know there's a lot of pressure like this to solve crimes, particularly compounded when they involve children like those examined in detail in this book. But it should be more motivation to work harder with what the actual evidence is saying to find the actual perpetrator, instead of manipulating evidence to match an easy one. If that had been done in rural Mississippi, one of the two little girls mentioned above would still be alive.

Funding, or lack thereof, and politics are major issues that also helped these two stay in business for so long, and so prolifically. After pushing out a medical examiner who caused problems for them, the position remained vacant. West said, "What we don't need is a medical pathologist who wants to argue with other pathologists about cause of death, which has happened in the past."

Reading that statement after reading about their doings is mind-boggling. As the authors write, that's obviously EXACTLY what Mississippi needed, and what would have not only kept innocent men out of jail, (some still languishing there) but saved lives.

Hayne collected lots of dubious certifications, another element that makes you wonder how it's possible. With these realistically entirely insignificant credentials, which weren't questioned on the stand in court, he could suitably impress juries into believing he held membership in significant organizations in various forensic fields. Here's an example of one such organization:

The august-sounding American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI) was founded by Robert Louis O'Block, a criminal justice professor who...had been terminated from Appalachian State University in 1991 for plagiarism...O'Block developed an interest in the field of handwriting analysis. But when he applied for membership with an existing organization of forensic handwriting experts, they rejected him. So he decided to form his own credentialing organization for handwriting and put himself in charge. In 1992 he founded the American Board of Forensic Handwriting Analysts. Fraud magazine reported in 2012 that as O'Block expanded his group to other disciplines, he also hired his first national training director for the organization, a high school graduate with no college experience who claimed he could enlarge women's breasts through hypnosis. (The breast-enlarging hypnotist would later resign as a result of his own doubts about O'Block's credibility.)

Yes, that's completely hilarious (including that Fraud magazine exists - reminds me of 30 Rock when Jack Donaghy references Meetings magazine!) but wait: it's a lot less funny when you consider that organizations like this are "endorsing" so-called specialists and providing crucial analysis and testimony in criminal cases, putting potentially innocent people in prison and sometimes on death row. It's so terrifying I can't believe it's real. This whole book is like that.

Although at times some heavy focus on facts and figures made it somewhat dry in parts, and it fell a little on the long side and could've been more streamlined, it's an undeniably important book with some fascinating revelations that deserved the thorough treatment they're getting here. We need to be much more aware of what comprises certain elements of our criminal justice systems, and how and why any weaknesses are abused.

Excellent if frightening reportage on a topic that needs to be much more mainstream than it currently is.

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