Mississippi's criminal forensics disaster.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 20 2008 1:32 PM

The Bite-Marks Men

Mississippi's criminal forensics disaster.

Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. Click image to expand.
Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer

Between them, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks served more than 30 years in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. Brewer was sentenced to death, Brooks to life without parole. The crimes for which each was convicted are remarkably similar: A female toddler was abducted from her home, raped, murdered, and abandoned in the woods. In each case, Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood decided early on that the boyfriend of the girl's mother was the culprit. In each case, he asked Dr. Steven Hayne to perform the autopsy. And in each case, Dr. Hayne called in Dr. Michael West to perform some analysis of bite marks on the children. West claimed to have found bite marks that had been missed by other medical professionals and then testified in court that he could definitively match these marks to the teeth of the men Allgood suspected of committing the murders.

In each case, West was wrong. Two weeks ago, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced that police had arrested 51-year-old Albert Johnson for the toddlers' murders. Johnson's DNA matched that found at the scene in both crimes. And according to Hood, when confronted with the evidence, Johnson confessed to both crimes. Brewer and Brooks were released from prison last week. These may turn out to be the first in a string of exonerations we'll see coming out of Mississippi. For the last 20 years, the state's criminal autopsy system has been in disrepair. Nearly every institution in the state has failed to do anything about it.

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Last November, I wrote an investigative feature for Reason magazine about all of this, focusing in particular on the way in which Dr. Hayne has come to monopolize the state's autopsy business. I was astonished by what I found. Contrary to the story lines on shows such as CSI,forensics is far from an exact science. Even something seemingly as precise as DNA testing still requires careful preservation of evidence and is subject to human error and malfeasance. One key problem is that forensics labs often fall under the auspices of prosecutors. Even honest crime-lab workers, medical examiners, and other experts can be subtly influenced to make evidence conform to a prosecutor's wishes. In recent years, scandals have rocked crime labs across the country, even labs once considered world-class, such as the FBI's crime lab and the state lab in Virginia. In Mississippi, what's especially troubling is that state officials have had plenty of warning that something is wrong, and they've steadfastly refused to do anything about it.

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a doctor should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. Dr. Hayne has testified that he performs 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year. Sources I spoke with who have visited Hayne's practice say he and his assistants will frequently have multiple bodies open at once, sometimes smoking cigars and even eating sandwiches while moving from corpse to corpse. They prefer to work at night, adding to their macabre reputation.

Hayne isn't board-certified in forensic pathology, though he often testifies that he is. The only accepted certifying organization for forensic pathology is the American Board of Pathology. Hayne took that group's exam in the 1980s and failed it. Hayne's pal Dr. West is even worse. West has been subject to exposés by 60 Minutes, Time,and Newsweek. He once claimed he could definitively trace the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich left at the crime scene back to the defendant. He has compared his bite-mark virtuosity to Jesus Christ and Itzhak Perlman. And he claims to have invented a revolutionary system of identifying bite marks using yellow goggles and iridescent light that, conveniently, he says can't be photographed or duplicated.

Mississippi's system is set up in a way that increases the pressure on forensics experts to find what prosecutors want them to find. The state is one of several that elect county coroners to oversee death investigations. The office requires no medical training, only a high-school diploma, and it commonly goes to the owner of the local funeral home. If a coroner suspects a death may be due to criminal activity, he'll consult with the district attorney or sheriff, then send the body to a private-practice medical examiner for an autopsy. The problem here is that a medical examiner who returns unsatisfactory results to a prosecutor jeopardizes his chance of future referrals. Critics say Hayne has become the preferred medical examiner for Mississippi's coroners and district attorneys, because they can rely on him to deliver the diagnoses they're looking for.

Under state law, this whole process is supposed to be overseen by a board-certified state medical examiner. The last two people to hold that office, Dr. Lloyd White from 1988 to 1992 and Dr. Emily Ward from 1993 to 1995, were appalled at the way the state was handling death investigations. Both tried to implement reforms. And both were met with fiery resistance. Dr. Ward's tenure was particularly raucous. West (who at the time was the elected county coroner for Forrest County) circulated a petition signed by slightly more than half the state's coroners calling for her resignation. The legislature has largely refused to fund the office since. It's been vacant since 1995.

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