March 07, 2018 The Modern Law Library

Dark tale of ‘The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist’ brings false convictions to light

By Lee Rawles

For nearly two decades, Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West were the go-to experts who Mississippi law enforcement and prosecutors relied on when there was a potential homicide. Hayne performed the bulk of the autopsies in the state, while West was a dentist who touted his skill in bite-mark analysis and his pioneering use of UV light on human skin to detect trace markings he claimed he could match to objects. But after years of investigations and countless testimonies from the men, their claims of expertise began to fall apart—and wrongful convictions began coming to light.

In The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South, authors Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington lay out what happened; how the state’s legal system aided and abetted the use of flawed forensic evidence; how systemic racism influenced Mississippi’s coroner system; and the stories of some of the innocent people whose lives were derailed.

A 1996 article by Mark Hansen in the ABA Journal was one of the first to question West’s bite-mark analysis claims. However, Carrington says, West continued to testify as an expert witness for years afterward. He didn’t stop doing bite-mark analysis until 2006.

From the 1990s until 2008, Hayne was paid by Mississippi to perform about 80 percent of state autopsies—conducting around 1,200 to 1,800 per year—even though the National Association of Medical Examiners recommends that an examiner perform no more than 250 annually. Hayne had also never passed the American Board of Pathology’s certification exam for forensic pathology. In a November 2014 opinion in Koon v. Cain, the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals referred to Hayne as a “now-discredited Mississippi coroner” who had “lied about his qualifications as an expert.”

Carrington, the founding director of the Mississippi Innocence Project and Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law, joins the ABA Journal’s Lee Rawles for this episode of the Modern Law Library. He discusses how he and Balko (a guest on a previous Modern Law Library episode) came to write the book together. He also shares the stories of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, who spent 18 years in prison for the murders of two 3-year-old girls before being cleared by DNA evidence, and the actions he thinks the state should take to address the thousands of cases that were potentially affected by flawed forensic science.

Further reading:

ABA Journal (2005): “The Uncertain Science of Evidence”

ABA Journal (2008): “Bite-Mark Evidence Loses Teeth”

ABA Journal (2011): “Unsettling Science: Experts Are Still Debating Whether Shaken Baby Syndrome Exists”

ABA Journal (2013): “Crime labs under the microscope after a string of shoddy, suspect and fraudulent results”

ABA Journal (2015): “Long-held beliefs about arson science have been debunked after decades of misuse”

In This Podcast:

Lee Rawles
Tucker Carrington is the founding director of the Mississippi Innocence Project and Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He previously taught at Georgetown University Law Center and worked as a staff and supervising attorney for the Public Defender Service for the District Of Columbia. He is the co-author, along with Radley Balko, of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist.