There was a story in yesterday's New York Times that reminded me of the Cedric Willis story.
(Read the Cedric Willis story here.)
Once again, DNA testing has proven that a man in prison could not possibly have committed the crime for which he was arrested, though in this case, the man was awaiting execution. The remarkable thing about this case is that the district attorney is moving ahead with a new prosecution despite the exonerating evidence.
The case concerns the horrifying abduction and rape of 3-year-old Christine Jackson in rural Noxubee County, outside of Macon. Fifteen years ago, police arrested Kennedy Brewer, an African-American laborer the Times describes as "mildly retarded." Brewer was the boyfriend of Jackson's mother, who was also arrested. She was held for seven months and then released. Brewer was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death.
Now, fifteen years later, DNA testing has excluded Brewer as the rapist. This seems to make little difference to District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who made the original, flawed case against Brewer. (That name would seem over-the-top if this were fiction, wouldn't it?)
"I perceive that Kennedy Brewer assisted someone else in the killing of the child," Mr. Allgood said. "Whether he actually penetrated that child or not functionally doesn't make any difference if he was aiding, assisting and encouraging in her death."
So we are supposed to believe that it simply doesn't matter that the prosecutor's original theory of the case was wrong? What's more, Allgood seems to have little evidence linking Brewer to the crime beyond the testimony of a disgraced dentist from Hattiesburg, Dr. Michael West.
In the original trial, West testified that there were 19 bite marks on the victim, all made by just the upper teeth, and five of those marks were made by Brewer. West, however, is hardly an inspiring expert witness.
At the time of the trial, Dr. West had been suspended from the American Board of Forensic Odontology and had resigned from the American Academy of Forensic Science and the International Association of Identification, pending expulsion.
Two other cases West testified for have been reversed by DNA evidence, and a defense expert told the Times he didn't think the bites were made by a human at all. What's more, about a year and a half before the Jackson murder, another 3-year-old girl was raped and murdered in Noxubee. Police arrested the boyfriend, who was convicted partly on the basis of testimony from West.
The Times story is written by Sheila Dewan, who seems to get a real kick out of looking down her nose on folks in Mississippi. Some of that attitude is on display here and flaws her story.
She tries to connect the case to civil rights trials like the recent conviction of James Ford Seale and essentially argues that despite such successes, Mississippi is still uniquely depraved in its application of justice. This seems gratuitous. She bends over backwards to make her point that people in Mississippi are ignorant.
Modern forensic tools do not appear to carry much weight in Noxubee County. Mr. Allgood said DNA reversals — there have been more than 200 nationwide — did not prove innocence.
That is an extraordinarily stupid thing to write. Dewan makes a bald assertion about all the people in an entire county based on the opinion of one prosecutor who is refusing to admit--possibly even to himself--that he put an innocent man on death row. Moreover, Allgood is not disputing the efficacy of "modern forensic tools," and he is not disputing the legitimacy of DNA testing, as Dewan seems to suggest. Instead, he is clinging to his implausible, new account in which Brewer was involved in the crime but did not actually rape Jackson. That is not the same thing as discounting DNA analysis itself, but Dewan is clearly set on telling the story she wants to tell, which is that people in Mississippi are hicks who don't understand modern science.
That ugliness aside, neither Allgood nor local law enforcement inspire confidence. According to Dewan, Allgood asserted that there is no state DNA database against which he could run the semen sample, but there is such a database. He told Dewan he had informed the sheriff about the new DNA results, but the sheriff said he had not been "officially" informed and had not re-opened the case. Earnest Eichelberger, who originally investigated the case for the sheriff, said he thought the mother should have been tried too simply because she had a history of child abuse.
"She was an accessory simply because of her history, to me," he said.
It makes one wonder if Eichelberger understands how the justice system works. If he does understand, he clearly doesn't care.
The good news is that this case seems destined for reversal, despite Allgood's stubborn refusal to acknowledge that he was wrong. The case has been moved to Oxford and has a new prosecutor, who declined to seek the death penalty against Brewer, meaning that he has finally been released on bail. (Even after DNA evidence exonerated Brewer in 2002, he spent five more years in jail because Allgood was still seeking the death penalty against him, making him ineligible for bail.)
Brewer is now represented by the Innocence Project, which was key to securing Cedric Willis' release. As that case amply demonstrates, the quality of legal advice a poor black man receives is far more crucial to the outcome of his trial than the actual evidence against him, which should make it clear to us all that our justice system is not just at all.
Finally, as was the case with Cedric Willis, it is profoundly disturbing that neither prosecutors nor law enforcement have made the least effort to find who actually committed the rape. In Cedric's case, when DNA evidence excluded him as the rapist, prosecutors (Ed Peters and Bobby DeLaughter) simply dropped that charge against him. And that was it. The police made no effort to find the actual rapist, and it's clear that whoever committed the crimes for which Willis was falsely convicted got away with it free and clear, aided and abetted by the arrogance and incompetence of prosecutors.
Now, despite the lack of credible evidence against Kennedy Brewer, DA Forrest Allgood is wasting judicial resources trying to prove that he was not wrong even though he was wrong. Meanwhile, whoever raped 3-year-old Christine Jackson remains unpunished, and may well remain free to commit more horrifying crimes against innocent children.
Brian, did you hear that the Innocence Project is opening up shop in Mississippi—in Oxford? John Grisham provided a bunch of the money, apparently.
Boy, do we need it with all the crookedness in our judicial system.
The defendant is now out of jail thanks to the brillant work of Andre DeGruy, the Director of the Office of Capital Defense Counsel. Another nameless lawyer in our office brought in the Innocence Project of New York, but it was Mississippi lawyers who got the death penalty dropped and the defendant out of jail. The Mississippi Innocence Project, referenced above, is holding it inaugural fundraiser in Jackson on October 22, 2007, hosted by Ole Miss along with Alum John Grisham and author and colleague Scott Turow. For ticket information, contact Renee Van Slyke at 662-915-6822 or [email][email protected][/email]
It's certainly terrible what happened to that child, and it's too bad the authorities couldn't find who did it. This case was one of several where children were abducted, raped and killed in that jurisdiction.
- Ray Carter