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Did Texas execute an innocent man? Film revisits a haunting question.

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Texans will have an opportunity to revisit a question that should haunt anyone who believes in the integrity of our criminal justice system: Did our state execute an innocent man? 
The new film “Trial by Fire” tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was sentenced to death for setting a fire to his home in Corsicana that killed his three young daughters in 1991. The film is based on an investigative story by David Grann that appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, five years after Willingham was executed over his vociferous protestations of innocence.
In my experience of serving 8 years on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and 4 years as a state district judge in Travis County, the Willingham case stands out to me for many of the same reasons it stood out to filmmaker Edward Zwick, who calls it a veritable catalogue of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system and, especially, the death penalty. False testimony, junk science, a jailhouse informant, and ineffe…

A haunting chronicle of life after death row in Mississippi

Levon Brooks (left) and Kennedy Brewer
Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks spent decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit

MAYBE the best argument against capital punishment is that it can kill an innocent man. This almost happened to Kennedy Brewer, who in March 1995 was convicted of the abduction, rape and murder of Christine Jackson, his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. After a brief trial, the jury condemned him to death.

Mr Brewer was driven to Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Penitentiary, fitted with a red jumpsuit and locked in a maximum-security cell. His execution was originally set for May of the same year.

Levon Brooks was also at Parchman, convicted of the similarly gruesome rape and murder of Courtney Smith, another three-year-old girl, only a few miles from Mr Brewer’s house. Mr Brooks was sentenced to life imprisonment. Both convictions largely relied on two witnesses. One was Steven Hayne, a medical examiner formerly responsible for up to 80% of Mississippi’s annual autopsies; for a spell Mr Hayne performed over 1,500 a year, six times the professional standard. The other was Michael West, a dentist with a record of controversial testimony.

After spending a combined 29 years in prison both men were exonerated in 2008, thanks to the painstaking work of lawyers at the Innocence Project in New York, which investigates wrongful convictions. A DNA test in Mr Brewer’s case pointed to Justin Johnson, a convicted sex-offender who lived nearby. On his arrest, Mr Johnson admitted to both crimes. He had briefly been a suspect in the murder of Courtney Smith, but Mr West had claimed his teeth failed to match what he identified as bite marks on the victim. It now seems possible that the little girl’s body bore no bite marks at all (Mr Johnson made no mention of biting either child in his confession). Mr Brewer and Mr Brooks each received $500,000 in compensation.

These tragic events have yielded a pair of complementary books. In “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist”, Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project and Radley Balko, a journalist at the Washington Post, meticulously document the twin miscarriages of justice, laying bare the systemic problems and structural racism that lead poor black men to be wrongfully convicted in disproportionate numbers. “The core problem with the medico-legal system in Mississippi is that it’s easily manipulated—it serves those in power,” they write.

The other book is a volume of haunting pictures by Isabelle Armand, a French photographer, with accompanying text by Mr Carrington. An article about the ordeal of Mr Brewer and Mr Brooks prompted Ms Armand to get in touch with them. “It was so shocking that forensics could be so flawed,” she says. She spent five years taking thousands of pictures of Mr Brewer, Mr Brooks and their extended families (Mr Brewer has 14 siblings). The black-and-white images stand out for the beauty of rural Mississippi, the poverty of the two clans, who live mainly in trailers, and the indomitable spirit of the men—who had, almost literally, come back from the dead. “I never lost hope,” Mr Brooks told Ms Armand. “I knew God was on my side.”

Mr Brooks died of colon cancer in January. He lived only ten years after his release, but he made the most of them. He raised chickens, quails and rabbits and married Dinah Johnson in 2016. Mr Brewer is younger and in relatively good health. He has a fiancée too, Omelia Givens. “I did good, some guys go crazy in prison,” he told Ms Armand. “I knew I didn’t do it.”

Mr Carrington now hopes to exonerate Eddie Howard, who has been on Mississippi’s death row since 2000 for the rape and murder of an 84-year-old woman. He was convicted largely because of a match of his teeth to bite wounds identified by Mr West. Genetic testing found no traces of Mr Howard on the murder weapon or the body or elsewhere at the crime scene. “In a fair world, he would be free,” says Mr Carrington. “But this is Mississippi.”

- Levon and Kennedy. By Isabelle Armand and Tucker Carrington. Powerhouse Books; 110 pages; $39.95 and £33.99

- The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist. By Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington. Public Affairs; 319 pages; $28.00

Source: The Economist, April 14, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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