Anyone looking at the coroners and the use of forensics experts in Mississippi would see a deeply flawed—possibly irredeemably—system that ignores murders and sends innocent people to prison for life or condemns them to death. But Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington argue in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist that the system is working as exactly as designed. Any time someone tries to reform this system they are quickly shown the door. Legal reform is equally difficult, even with lawyers from organizations like the Innocence Project trying to win appeals and exonerations. Balko (a journalist) and Carrington (a law professor and first director/founder of the Mississippi Innocence Project) came to this story, they write in the first chapter, because two cases of wrongful conviction lead them to two of the biggest problems with Mississippi’s coronial system: Steven Hayne and Michael West. Balko and Carrington tear into Hayne and Wests’ reputations and bury these so-called expert witnesses in evidence of their shoddy work, pro-prosecution testimony, and years of lies.
Balko and Carrington’s The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is the kind of true crime book that enthralls me at the same time that it makes me seethe. The authors did an astounding amount of research to put this book together. Not only do they take down Hayne and West, they also write a history of Mississippi’s coronial system in the twentieth century. For those not familiar, Mississippi (like a lot of American states) uses a system of elected coroners to determine if sudden deaths are either accidents, suicides, or murders. Unless the coroner declares a death a homicide, local law enforcement won’t investigate. Balko and Carrington share reports about the coronial system the reveal that many (most) of Mississippi’s coroners were, for decades, rarely qualified in medicine or forensics. Some of these coroners were, they found, illiterate. During the Civil Rights Movement, so many murders went uninvestigated that Mississippi gained a reputation as a murderers’ haven (especially if the victim was Black).
Balko and Carrington skillfully blend this history with the cases of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. These two men were charged with similar crimes. Brooks was sentenced to life in prison for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of toddler Courtney Smith. Brewer was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of another toddler, Christine Jackson. Both crimes, Balko and Carrington reveal, were committed by the same man—a man who was able to escape justice for decades because local law enforcement and the district attorney thought they had already gotten the person responsible in each case. Its only thanks to the Innocence Project, post-conviction lawyers, and increasingly sophisticated DNA science that Brooks and Brewer were exonerated. They were also exonerated in part because enough people were starting to ask questions about Hayne and West, who had delivered damning (and false) forensic testimony during Brooks and Brewer’s trials.
I’ve been ambivalent about the death penalty for a long time. Novels and true crime and TV shows have showed me how much of America’s court system is legal theater. Whoever can hire the best lawyer, who can put on the best show for the judge and jury, can—barring really convincing forensic evidence—be acquitted. People who can’t afford a good lawyer can be rushed through a trial to a life term or a death sentence. I would usually say that I don’t support the death penalty except in cases of serial murderers but, after reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (among other books) has me questioning the entire law enforcement and criminal justice system so much that I think we should ban the death penalty. I also think that there should be a lot more regulations to make sure that coroners, sheriffs, and the rest are all professionals who know what they are doing, in addition to bigger consequences for officials who commit ethical violations and building a much more robust public defender system.