After serving 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Levon Brooks walked away from the Noxubee County courthouse a free man this morning. Arrested for the rape and murder of his girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter, Courtney Smith, in 1990, Judge J. Lee Howard released Brooks on his own recognizance on Feb. 15, pending today's hearing. Brooks received a life sentence for the crimes in 1992 after two years in jail waiting for his trial.
Brooks was fully exonerated this morning, the indictment against him dismissed. He will not be re-charged.
In a case with nearly identical circumstances, Howard exonerated Kennedy Brewer for the 1992 rape and murder of Christine Jackson, also 3 at the time of her murder. In that case, DNA evidence proved that Brewer was not Jackson's rapist in 2001, however Noxubee District Attorney Forrest Allgood said at the time that he would retry Brewer and kept him in jail.
The same DNA that exonerated Brewer proved that Justin Albert Johnson, 51, a suspect in both cases, was Jackson's rapist. Johnson confessed to the rapes and murders both girls on Feb. 4, when authorities confronted him with the DNA results.
"Levon Brooks' long nightmare is finally over," said Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld in a statement after today's hearing. "But we are just beginning to uncover the extent of forensic misconduct that led to his wrongful conviction and countless others across Mississippi. Two men who claim to be medical and scientific experts gave false and misleading testimony that directly led to Levon Brooks' wrongful conviction. For the public to have any confidence in the state's criminal justice system, Steven Hayne and Michael West must be held accountable and must be prevented from testifying in future cases."
Hattiesburg dentist West and Jackson pathologist Hayne testified in both cases and their findings are at least partially responsible for the Brooks and Brewer convictions. The Innocence Project provided their forensic evidence to renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden and a panel of bite-mark experts, who all strongly disagreed with their original findings.
West defended himself to The Clarion-Ledger, saying: "I never testified he killed her. I never testified he raped her."
Hayne would not comment on statements made by the Innocence Project when the Jackson Free Press spoke with him in February.
Neither Brooks nor Brewer will receive any compensation from Mississippi for the years of their lives lost.
This victory is bittersweet. I'm glad Brooks has been released, but that way he was treated by the system saddens me.