The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

The stereotypical crime stories of the American Deep South often include openly racist government and corrupt law enforcement. The opposition to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century was led by figures like Bull Connor, George Wallace, as well as the less widely known Sheriff Willis McCall, men whose words and deeds have made them infamous in American history as caricatures of evil in public office. Men like those made it easy to identify racism, injustice, and the rigged systems they oversaw and protected.

More than half a century later, the machineries of injustice are less obvious to a majority of Americans. We have seen the eradication of de jure Jim Crow, the rise of the black middle class, and African Americans in numerous prominent positions in public life—not just in the historic roles in sports and entertainment, but literature, government, and business. The prisons that overflow with black and brown bodies are out of sight and thus very often out of mind. The aggressive policing that occurs in black ghettos throughout American cities, north and south—and the very existence of those black ghettos in the first place—are mostly just an accepted part of life. An occasional video may show an isolated instance of police abuse or a story will come out about an innocent man left to sit in jail for years without trial, but for the most part, these are blips in the daily lives of Americans who strongly support the police and express at least grudging support of the criminal justice system.

But when people dig a little deeper into any one the thousands of separate state, local, and county criminal justice systems, they may find dysfunctional apparatuses and ambitious people who, with no particular ill will or intent, railroad the innocent into long prison terms or even death sentences. Any given system’s protections for the innocent often are undermined by shoddy police investigations, inept or overburdened defense council, and dubious “scientific” evidence that confirms the conclusions already reached by law enforcement and prosecutors. Such was the case for Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, two innocent men who were trapped in a system that functioned—and often still functions—more like a conviction manufacturing machine than an instrument of public justice. While several of the men who made their livings in the Mississippi justice system described in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist are seriously flawed, even detestable, the story told by journalist Radley Balko and attorney Tucker Carrington is missing that unquestionable villain that intentionally frames the innocent or acts out of hatred of his fellow man. To borrow the term coined by Hannah Arendt, to read this book about the Mississippi justice system in the 1990s is to encounter the banality of evil.

Bestselling author and Mississippi lawyer John Grisham wrote the forward to the book, in which he outlines the eight most common contributing factors at work in convictions of the innocent: bad police work, prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, faulty eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, ineffective counsel, “sleeping” judges, and junk science. The Brewer and Brooks cases each feature five or six of the eight, depending how one counts the series of misfortunes foisted upon these men. The system’s supposed safeguards failed Brewer and Brooks at almost every level and, but for the advancement of DNA evidence, both men would almost certainly have died in prison.

The book’s colorful title refers to Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist who became Mississippi prosecutors’ number one man to confirm the state’s assertions on the cause of death, and Dr. Michael West, a dentist who marketed himself, among other things, as a forensic bitemark expert. Although both men’s degrees were legitimate—they were not complete frauds—Balko and Carrington argue that both took on responsibilities and supposed expertise that neither was humanly capable of performing (Hayne claimed to annually perform over 1,500 autopsies, many times the maximum amount recommended by certifying agencies), or qualified to claim (West once claimed expertise in interpreting grainy video). They each testified in countless criminal cases as experts, including those of Brewer and Brooks, and we’re still unsure how many of their errors and fabrications put innocent men behind bars.

The story Balko and Carrington tell describes the men at the heart of the story, as well as the history of the offices that lacked the basic discipline and oversight required to approach the minimum standards of justice. Anyone the least bit familiar with the criminal procedure, even through highly fictionalized dramas on television, will find outrage after outrage that should never have been allowed in the investigation or let into the courtroom. Lawyers and others more familiar with how the system is supposed to work—and often doesn’t—may be taken aback by the sheer number of egregious injustices recounted in the book.

Although Brewer and Brooks eventually were exonerated, the message of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is not and cannot be that “the truth will win out in the end.” Avoidable tragedies robbed these men of decades of freedom and affected the lives of many more around them. These extraordinary cases have played out innumerable times in Mississippi, in part thanks to men like Drs. Hayne and West, but also in cities and towns across the country without the same unscrupulous opportunists. Herein lies the importance of the book: we have no idea how many innocent men and women sit in prison today. In a nation with roughly two million people behind bars, a conservative estimate of the number of imprisoned innocent people is probably in the thousands, and perhaps in the tens of thousands. Our criminal systems must be improved to minimize the chances of wrongful convictions in the future. Balko and Carrington have produced a great—and infuriating—book about how this can happen. The state of justice in Mississippi may have been particularly bleak, but so many of the problems that happened there are not unique at all.

Jonathan Blanks is a Research Associate in Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice and a Writer in Residence at Harvard University’s Fair Punishment Project.