Elie Mystal’s New York Times book review of “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist,” by the Washington Post journalist Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington, a law professor at the University of Mississippi, provides insight to an interesting twist on the impact of “junk science", particularly in the South.
In The Cadaver King there is no murder mystery. The book details the wrongful convictions of two men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, in the separate murders of two girls in the same rural Mississippi town in the early 1990s. But the real killer of both 3-year-olds is revealed to the reader before the wrong men are even put on trial. We are also spared the anguish of wondering if the system will ever get it right, for we know the men have already been freed thanks to the work of the nonprofit criminal exoneration organization the Innocence Project.
The crime having been solved early on, Balko and Carrington devote the bulk of the book to pulling back the curtain on the justice system’s little-known but systemic problem that put Brewer and Brooks behind bars: faulty and biased forensic evidence. Junk science convicted these men; real science set them free. The inability of judges and jurors to tell the difference is why innocent men languish in jail while the prosecutors who put them there run for higher office.
Mississippi would have been better served by the actual actors from “CSI” conducting its forensic investigations than the autopsy specialist Steven Hayne and his “sidekick,” the bite-mark analyst Michael West. The book isn’t even really about exposing these men, as they’re already disgraced. Instead, Balko and Carrington have written a cry for help: “What happened in Mississippi may be the most wide-reaching scandal to date. Few states have encountered revelations that strike as forcefully at the very foundation of its criminal justice system. And few states’ public officials have shown less concern or taken less action after having learned of the problem.”
But, like so many who have demanded criminal justice reform, the authors are likely to fail. Not because they’re wrong, or because not enough judges and lawyers and politicians know they’re right. But because fixing the problem is just too hard.
The real tension in Balko and Carrington’s book is why it’s too hard — whether our society’s tendency to incarcerate innocent individuals results from basic incompetence, or bald racism.
The authors propose an answer: “There’s no question that Hayne and West thrived in a system that was created and honed during Jim Crow, and that for decades was used to reinforce the segregated social order. There’s also no question that the system’s problems continue to disproportionately affect minority and poor populations across the state. But no one has described Hayne as a racist. … Instead, Hayne could be described more as an opportunist.”
The bigotry in our criminal justice system is one of its key features, not an unfortunate bug. Mississippi wouldn’t allow quack science to convict the wrong people if white citizens primarily bore the burden. The namesake “bad guys” in this book are allowed to exist because their work puts black men behind bars, not in spite of it.
What’s the remedy for a person who has been convicted based on so-called science that we now know to be faulty, corrupt or both? One doesn’t need a law degree to answer that question. Common sense or a modicum of human decency suggests that those found guilty based on bad evidence deserve justice. But to grant all such retrials would be too much for this country’s criminal courts to bear.
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