Radley Balko, Washington Post criminal-justice reporter, is an outstanding example of a type of journalist that’s all but vanished at national papers: the “beat reporter,” someone who, despite lacking a top-level credential in the field he covers, researches it so deeply and thoroughly for so long that he becomes the expert.
Better, Balko compounds his knowledge with a rare degree of honesty. Where other “issue” journalists blur the line between reporting and advocacy, Balko consistently refuses to indulge in strawmen. To be sure, he has his perspective – a libertarian one – but he’s well known for the lengths to which he goes to get and accurately report the views of people on the other side of a crimlaw debate. If there’s one thing you can count on Balko to do, it’s report first, provide an analysis second.
It’s tough to overstate how much credibility this gets him in an era dominated by partisan screeching. It also translates into a lot of access: his first book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, wouldn’t have been nearly as insightful if he’d alienated police by condemning them from afar instead of seeking out their company and making the effort to understand their positions.
It’s with pleasure that I say his integrity continues to serve him well, as his new book, The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, written with Tucker Carrington, is a genuine triumph.* It’s well-written, conceived and executed, and it tells an outrageous story, that of a fraud committed on the people of Mississippi over more than two decades. As Balko makes painfully clear, it was done with the knowledge, approval and cooperation of, it sometimes seems, everyone in the state government.
From cops to prosecutors, elected coroners to elected judges, defense counsel to crime lab analysts to medical “experts” for hire, there’s hardly a slice of the criminal-justice system that emerges unscathed. Even the feds are tainted. The only heroes are the Innocence Project attorneys and the out-of-state pathologists who, every couple of years, show up to become Mississippi’s new state medical examiner (the lowest-paid position of its kind in the country) before being run out of town by coroner-and-prosecutor-instigated good-ol’-boy politics.
At the heart of the story are two doctors and two murder cases. Twice in the early ’90s, little girls in impoverished Noxubee County, Mississippi were abducted from their homes, raped and murdered. Both times, there was an obvious suspect, psychotic sex offender, Justin Johnson. Both times, police incompetence led them instead to a black man. One, Levon Brooks – who died of cancer as this review was being written – was charismatic and intelligent, well-liked at the time of his arrest and with a good job at a dance hall. The other, Kennedy Brewer, was a taciturn sort with an IQ in the sixties. They didn’t have much else in common, except this: they were poor and they were innocent.
Brooks and Brewer received subpar representation at trial, but it’s unclear how much even the best lawyers could’ve done for them. At first, there was no physical evidence tying either man to the murder of which he was accused, so then-Noxubee County DA Forrest Allgood, a fundamentalist Christian who emerges as a case study in confirmation bias, relied on a trick many Mississippi prosecutors before and after would use: he brought in pathologist Steven Hayne to perform autopsies on the girls and find him some. Hayne, in turn, got his friend Michael West, a dentist from the Mississippi town of Hattiesburg, to ride shotgun.
Hayne (the “Cadaver King”) and West (the “Country Dentist”) are the villains of the piece, as much as there can be said to be villains when the miscarriage of justice is this systemic. Balko brings plenty of evidence to show them to be manipulative, greedy narcissists who started out with patchy professional records. This last wasn’t a problem for long, though, as they came up with a brilliant way to inflate their resumes as well as drum up business – a lot of business.
In Mississippi in the ’80s, pathologists were paid a flat sum per autopsy. So Hayne simply resolved to do every one he could get his hands on, and damn the consequences. To that end, he resigned his position as a pathologist employed by the state, where he was limited to a mere couple of hundred autopsies a year; partnered up with a funeral director whose business he could use as a morgue; and went around persuading every coroner in Mississippi to send his cadavers Hayne’s way.
(Balko devotes a lot of space to exposing the origins of the job of coroner; unlike the medical examiners of more modern states, Mississippi’s coroners are elected, typically have no medical training and work hand-in-glove with law enforcement.)
Soon Hayne was doing thousands of autopsies a year, and committing extreme malpractice along the way. His reports are full of charming details like the uterus and ovaries he said he inspected, not realizing the cadaver in question was male, or the spleen he claimed to have weighed and dissected, even though the decedent had had it removed four years before. But his market share continued to grow – at one point, Hayne was doing 80% of the entire state’s autopsies. Why? Because Hayne was the human equivalent of a police dog; anything law enforcement wanted him to bark at, he did.
Hayne and West developed a devastating one-two punch. First, Hayne would “inspect” the cadaver and find bite marks. Then West, the dentist, used UV light and other sorcery to “match” them to a mold of the teeth of whatever suspect law enforcement had sized up for the crime. And when there were no scratches or insect bites that could be reinterpreted as bite marks on the stand, Hayne and West would just jam the mold into the victim’s skin.
But it’s not just that Hayne and West were frauds. The entire forensic discipline they used to turn police hunches into guaranteed convictions, “bite mark analysis,” is a sham. And yet, as Balko explains, Mississippi’s elected, law-and-order judges routinely abdicated their responsibility to keep junk science out of the courtroom. (They were, of course, considerably more skeptical of expert testimony in favor of criminal defendants, as of research showing false confessions to be commonplace.) The failure of judges to do their duty under Daubert is an underappreciated crimlaw problem, and Balko deserves credit for explaining it so well.
Ultimately, Hayne and West would testify in countless criminal trials, padding their resumes and charging thousands with each appearance, and be backed to the hilt by cops, prosecutors and coroners until years after they’d been exposed as frauds. Brooks and Brewer were freed, but the full damage these physicians did has yet to be understood, much less reckoned with. And the reactions of the players in the Hayne-era criminal-justice system whom Balko interviewed range from “meh” (certain judges) to totally unapologetic (DA Allgood.)
The next whizbang forensic discipline is just around the corner. Maybe it’ll involve self-driving cars or the blockchain, or something similarly stupid. West’s UV bite-mark-ID techniques sounded mighty sophisticated to the juries of his time. Will we learn to be more skeptical the next time law enforcement pulls this trick?
Balko’s The Cadaver King and The Country Dentist is an infuriating and important book. It deserves to be read. It needs to be read. Read it.
*Radley was kind enough to provide a free, advance copy of his book for review. The book will be released on February 27, 2018.