sk not for whom the bell tolls….it tolls for thee.
How do you plead? Not Guilty. Based on post-conviction DNA testing 350 people have been released from US prisons. This is the story of number 214 and 215.
Lavon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer were both from the same small town in Mississippi. They were about the same age and didn’t live far from each other. They weren’t friends, but they did know each other, as most people do in small towns. Their stories are woven together by the atrocity of the crimes for which they were convicted, the testimony of the same two experts at both their trials, and the man that really did it.
In 1992, three year old Courtney Smith was abducted from her bed at night as she lay sleeping. She was raped, strangled and dumped in a pond. The police rounded up all males that had been around her house the previous 24 hours before her death and took hair, blood and cheek swab samples. Lavon Brooks was the boyfriend of Courtney’s mother. The investigation locked in on him – never testing the collected samples of the other suspects. Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison based on the autopsy report and testimony of the coroner and the tooth impressions lifted from the bite marks on Courtney’s body that the Dentist expert testified were a perfect match to Levon.
Eighteen-months later and three miles down the road, three year old Christine Jackson was abducted from her bed at night as she lay sleeping. She was raped, strangled and dumped in a pond. The police rounded up all males that had been around her house the previous 24 hours before her death and took hair, blood and cheek swab samples. Kennedy Brewer was the boyfriend of Christine’s mother. The investigation locked in on him – never testing the collected samples of the other suspects. Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death based on the autopsy report and testimony of the coroner and the tooth impressions lifted from the bite marks on Christine’s body that the Dentist expert testified were a perfect match to Kennedy.
Although both men were in the same prison, they never saw each other. Death row inmates do not leave their cells except for one hour per day when they are locked alone in a solitary outdoor space. Despite their circumstances, neither gave up hope. Lavon Brooks sat in his cell creating artwork that he sold as greeting cards to the guards and other prisoners. Kennedy Brewer reached out to the Innocence Project. After reading his letter and deciding to take Brewer’s case, the Innocence Project recovered the samples of the suspects the police had initially rounded up along with the samples from the autopsy and rape kit of Christine Johnson. They tested all of the DNA. Brewer’s did not match…but there was a DNA sample that did. In both Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer’s cases, there was one common unpursued suspect – Justin Albert Johnson. Brewer appealed his case based on the new DNA evidence but was denied a new trial.
The innocence project persisted. They uncovered that the coroner was not Board Certified. He had walked out of the test in the 1970’s, never completing it. The National Board of Medical Examiners stresses that no more than 250 autopsies should be performed in a year and will deny Certification to anyone preforming over 350. Mississippi Medical Examiner, Steven Hayne, was preforming between 1500 to 1800 autopsies per year. 80 to 90% of all homicide cases went through his lab over a 15 to 20 year span. He was the expert witness in 40 of the 62 cases in Mississippi that are on death row. And his good friend, Dentist Mike West, testified in 25 of those same cases. Mike West was the expert witness that tied the dental impressions of both Lavon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer to the bite marks on the two girls. However, the re-examination of the evidence proved the ‘bite marks’ on both victims were, in fact, post mortem crawfish bites.
After six more years on death row, Kennedy Brewer was released after Justin Albert Johnson finally confessed to the murder of both little girls. Levon Brooks was also exonerated.
Both men returned to that same small Mississippi town. Brooks took care of his mother until her death a year later. Brewer got married. The Mississippi legislature passed a law that compensates the innocent for their years of incarceration. On his 51st birthday, Brooks received a check for $50,000.
“It ain’t about the money,” he said. “It’s about the freedom. I had to leave the thoughts and feelings I had when I was locked up, behind in the penitentiary.” Brewer agreed, saying, “I can’t hold on to being angry. It’s done. It’s over. I’m just happy to live life now.”
In 2010, Justin Albert Johnson was convicted of the rape and murder of the two toddlers and sentenced to life without parole.
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