Nonfiction: The Epidemic of Wrongful Convictions in America


“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, avoids these generic problems. 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.

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Kennedy Brewer

Credit
Isabelle Armand

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.

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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.

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