Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Book Review: The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

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

The Champion Magazine
September/October 2020

Criminal trials nationwide often turn on the testimony of experts who opine about everything from insanity to hair samples. Experts, whether eminently qualified Ivy Leaguers or dubious self-promoters out to make a profit, are often held in high esteem. Their presence in court is marked by great deference, their qualifications expounded upon ad nauseam, often unchallenged by overworked and underpaid public defenders.

            The pernicious influence of the expert witness is a modern phenomenon, not because they didn’t exist in courtrooms of the past, but because they were not so easily detected. The advent of DNA has exposed America to the inadequacies of forensic evidence and therewith the expert who either believes the gibberish she utters in court or, all the more appalling, intentionally misleads for profit.

            Washington Post journalist Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington, a law professor at the University of Mississippi have provided a vivid glimpse into the hocus pocus of forensic evidence in the deep south.  Their book, “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist,” published by PublicAffairs, Hachette Book Group, is set in Mississippi and examines the wrongful convictions of two men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, in two separate child murders in the early 1990s.

            The book is not a suspenseful whodunit, but is gut wrenching nonetheless. Balko and Carrington painstakingly examine the faulty work of two so called experts—Steven Hayne and Michael West—who often collaborated, and dominated the Mississippi death investigation system for nearly 20 years.  During those two decades, virtually every homicide in the state of Mississippi included one or both of them as key prosecution witnesses. 

            Hayne began performing autopsies for the state of Mississippi in about 1987.  Within 20 years, according to Balko and Carrington, he was performing more than 1,800 autopsies a year. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends that medical examiners perform no more than 250 autopsies per year.

            West was an “expert” in bite mark analysis.  The analysis of bite marks is a class of forensics called pattern matching.  As the authors suggest, pattern matching is “entirely subjective.”

            Balko and Carrington have used the egregious conduct of Hayne and West to demonstrate the pervasive misuse of forensic evidence and expert testimony.

            The authors point to studies that have revealed problems with ballistic, handwriting, tire tread, shoe print, hair and fingerprint analysis.  They point to weaknesses in drug-dogs, drug field tests and even Shaken Baby Syndrome. 

            The authors’ research even revealed a study published in 2013 that found crime labs in many states are paid per conviction. 

            Mississippi is by no means the only state to be outed in recent years regarding faulty forensic analysis. In West Virginia, a single crime lab analyst may be responsible for as many as 134 wrongful convictions.

            In 2005, a Tennessee state medical examiner was found guilty of misconduct. Between 2015 and the publication of Balko and Carrington’s book,  there were crime lab controversies in Houston; Austin; Orlando; San Francisco; Broward County, Florida; and with the Ohio, New Jersey and Oregon state police labs.

            The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is an expose of the often vaunted role of experts in the criminal justice system.  Although the news is replete with stories of exonerations of men and women who have spent countless years behind bars for crimes they did not commit—it is still almost sacrosanct to speak of holding detectives and prosecutors accountable for permitting such injustices.

            Just as this review was being written, Blako wrote a lengthy article in the Washington Post revealing a conviction and death sentence for a defendant almost certainly innocent. Twenty-two-year-old, Toforest Johnson was convicted of murdering William Hardy in Birmingham, Alabama.

            Johnson was partying at a nightclub called Tee’s Place miles away from the crime scene precisely when Hardy was murdered and his lawyers provided 10 witnesses who saw him at the club. 

            Balko has, and continues to, convincingly point out grievous miscarriages of justice but what is missing from Balko and Carrington’s book is the way forward.  How do we stop rogue lab techs, overzealous criminal investigators and ambitious prosecutors from abusing the system? The problems are clear—the solutions are not.

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