The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South

After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist chronicles how the courts and Mi...

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Title:The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South
Author:Radley Balko
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The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South Reviews

  • Janet

    I received a DIGITAL Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. From the publisher -

    After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.

    The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist chronicles how the courts and Mi

    I received a DIGITAL Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. From the publisher -

    After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.

    The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist chronicles how the courts and Mississippi's death investigation system--a relic of the Jim Crow era--failed to deliver justice for its citizens and recounts the horrifying story of the two men who built successful careers on the back of this system. For nearly two decades, medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne performed the vast majority of Mississippi's autopsies, while his friend Dr. Michael West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades. Together they became the go-to experts for prosecutors and helped put countless Mississippians in prison. But then some of those convictions began to fall apart. Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington argue that bad forensics, structural racism, and institutional failures are at fault, and raise sobering questions about our criminal justice system's ability to address them.

    This book made me so freaking angry --- my blood just boiled at times. These men sent down my total incompetent "experts" will never get their lives back, or make up for lost time ... yet this happened time and time again. I am sure false convictions have sent thousands to jail/death row/execution and that more will happen. This is a tragedy and a travesty ... and I so enjoyed this book that I have already decided to buy a hard copy for my law-junkie husband. Five amazing stars.

  • Debra

    It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

    - James Baldwin, No name in the Street

    This is a very sobering book about how racism, bad forensics, institutionalization and a faulty criminal justice system in Mississippi put hundreds of innocent people behind bars.

    Two three-year-old girls were taken from their homes, sexually assaulted and murdered in rural Mississippi. Of course, this was an outrage, but what is also a crime is that

    It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.

    - James Baldwin, No name in the Street

    This is a very sobering book about how racism, bad forensics, institutionalization and a faulty criminal justice system in Mississippi put hundreds of innocent people behind bars.

    Two three-year-old girls were taken from their homes, sexually assaulted and murdered in rural Mississippi. Of course, this was an outrage, but what is also a crime is that law enforcement officials at the time pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together these two men served a combined thirty years in prison. Thirty years that they will not get back. Thirty years that they were robbed of while the real killer went free. Also, two children died horrifically. Where is the justice when the wrong people are convicted and placed in jail?

    The Jim Crow south was alive and well in Mississippi. This book chronicles how two men made a living off this corrupt system. Dr. Steven Hayne performed autopsy after autopsy - more than any other coroner. He often bragged that he never took a vacation let alone a day off...but how can one take a day off when you are so busy with "coroner obstruction." How his friend, local dentist, Dr. Michael West became a forensic expert especially when it came to human bite analysis. Their works was rushed, often unprofessional and not keeping with forensic standards. Using evidence form embalmed bodies, citing wrong causes of death, etc. It was appalling to see how unprofessional they were and, yet they were used the most by prosecutors.

    It is evident that a tremendous amount of research went into the writing of this book. I was shocked to see the dates of many occurrences of such breeches of not only common decency but professionalism in the criminal justice system. How state senator Robert Crook, one of Mississippi's most powerful lawmakers once said "We just cut her tits off. She wont be coming here trying to tell us what to do anymore." in regards to Faye Spruill, a female medical examiner. Dr. Spruill was the first woman in the country to be named an official state medical examiner. The good ole boys in Mississippi did not like a fiery woman telling them how to do the job.

    Racism, ignorance, bad forensics, crooked officials, and inept doctors and lawyers are at fault. How are these issues addressed? How do you fix a system that is so badly broken? How do you give back time that has been stolen from someone's life? How do you explain to a family who lost their child that the real killer got to walk free for so many years without facing justice?

    Thank you to Perseus Books, Public Affairs and NetGalley who provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

    See more of my reviews at

  • Valerity (Val)

    This was a sad and tragic retelling of the story about a pair of so-called doctors in Mississippi who got involved in the court system as professional testifiers. The first one is the prolific Dr. Steven Hayne. He had lined himself up to be in a position to be doing an incredible 80% of the state's autopsies when he already had 2 full-time jobs to do. Plus lab work, testifying, private autopsies, and other duties. Not to mention that when the recommended number of per year is 350 to keep from ov

    This was a sad and tragic retelling of the story about a pair of so-called doctors in Mississippi who got involved in the court system as professional testifiers. The first one is the prolific Dr. Steven Hayne. He had lined himself up to be in a position to be doing an incredible 80% of the state's autopsies when he already had 2 full-time jobs to do. Plus lab work, testifying, private autopsies, and other duties. Not to mention that when the recommended number of per year is 350 to keep from overdoing and making errors, Hayne was doing 1200 to 1800 a year, mostly at night, so he can keep pace with his other jobs and obligations during the day. Needless to say, he can't be doing all of it well or correctly. There are often reports of cases where he claimed to have removed and weighed organs from bodies, which when exhumed years later turned out to be fully intact. Or in other cases, one or more organs had been surgically removed years before the autopsy. Troubling indeed.

    For help with such a huge workload, he often brings in his helper, Dr. Michael West, a country dentist who also has an interest in forensics and bite marks in particular and has styled himself as a specialist in the field and advertises himself as a hired gun to prosecutors. Together they package themselves and promote their various "skills" to various police agencies and area prosecutors as being available to help with difficult cases to make them more solvable. The problems lie in how they accomplished this.

    Then comes a couple of murder cases, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, two black men both convicted in different cases of brutally raping and killing young girls. Dr. Hayne's autopsy information and Dr. West's bite mark testimony was involved in convicting both of these young men... wrongfully convicting them. By the time they were able to get help from The Innocence Project, they had long been in prison many years. but were finally able to be exonerated. It was finally proven that another man had killed the girls. But still, Dr. Hayne was used as a coroner for a long time. It took some time but Dr. West fell out of favor. It seemed Dr. Hayne never might but he finally did too. I was provided a copy by NetGalley, Radley Balko, and Perseus Books for my honest review.

  • Josh
  • ♥ Sandi ❣

    4 1/2 stars

    This book is really hard for me to review. I have been mad at books before, have had a book that actually gave me nightmares, and have had books that gave me doubt - but this particular one scared the hell out me. It points out that we are not always in control of our lives. Not in a sci-fi way, this book is a non-fiction book - but in the way that our families, our freedoms and our futures can be taken away - at the drop of a hat - for absolutely no fault of our own, whatsoever.

    This

    4 1/2 stars

    This book is really hard for me to review. I have been mad at books before, have had a book that actually gave me nightmares, and have had books that gave me doubt - but this particular one scared the hell out me. It points out that we are not always in control of our lives. Not in a sci-fi way, this book is a non-fiction book - but in the way that our families, our freedoms and our futures can be taken away - at the drop of a hat - for absolutely no fault of our own, whatsoever.

    This book is based on the state death investigation system in the state of Mississippi. It screams of the corrupt, unapologetic, egotistical, racist, lying judicial system - starting with police, mayors, prosecutors, judges, attorney generals, coroners - and right on up the line. There has not been a lot of change down there since the early 1900's. Except that it has gotten worse as far as bad officials go. Innocent men, some with good alibis, have sat on death row for years for crimes they did not commit and some of them cannot get a judge to even let them test the DNA from these crimes.

    Two men were responsible for over 24 years of bad forensics, bad judgment and fabricating evidence and testimony in Mississippi to collaborate with prosecutors who had already determined that a person was guilty. One was medical examiner Steven Haynes. He claimed to do over 300 autopsies a month - which is the standard amount a coroner is scheduled to do in a full year - he gave expert testimony in murder trials twisting the evidence to coincide with what the prosecutors wanted, he testified to being a 'certified' pathologist, when he had walked out of that testing and ended up buying his certification from a diploma mill. Most of this information was known by the Attorney General, judges, prosecutors and the police force and it was in their best interest to ignore it. Haynes side kick was a small time dentist, Michael West. He touted a number of new and none proven scientific forensics as gospel, such as being able to see bite marks on people or corpses, often weeks after their death, by using ultra violet lights. He would then build a mold and continually press that mold into where he said the bite mark was, until there was an imprint. Hence, conviction. Both these men had medical examiners and forensic specialists testify against them as to their findings and methods being totally wrong, when the arrested person could afford that extra specialist, which was next to impossible. The courts most often ignored that testimony and went with whatever Haynes and West testified. Even when they could not produce any evidence - boldly saying that the evidence had been thrown away and the court should "just take my word for it". Their twisted and or false evidence corroborated what the prosecutor wanted. Mississippi courts still do not assign a public defender, to this day. And if the accused can afford to hire one, they are so logged down with cases that often their help is next to worthless.

    For 24 years these two men helped to imprison innocent people until in 2008 Haynes was ousted by Steve Simpson of the Department of Public Safety. He had his Mississippi state autopsy rights taken away from him and additional rules were implemented to keep non-certified persons from performing autopsies and giving expert testimony in court. This took about $2 million a year away from Haynes. He had many, many people stand up for him, in addition to the Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. In 2010 a bill to legitimize doctors performing autopsies was introduced to the Mississippi legislature. Both West and Haynes lobbied against that bill. It finally passed. In 2012 West gave up his dental practice and started denouncing the bite mark evidence as being credible, the very evidence he had used for years to convict so many people.

    Then it was proven that two men on death row were innocent - Kenny Brewer and Levon Brooks, both accused of the rape and murder of two small children in separate incidences. Together they spent 30 years in prison before being exonerated in 2008. Both men convicted due to evidence by Haynes and West - trying to fit the evidence to what the prosecutors wanted, while the man guilty of both the crimes, Justin Johnson, went free, until finally after 30 years he confessed. Jim Hood, Mississippi's Attorney General has since moved to prevent the reassessment of all the convictions that were determined on the evidence that West and Haynes fabricated, even knowing that there had been errors made, forensics used that were proven wrong, many people in prison, many people on death row for crimes they did not commit. And to make matters worse after all their appeals, a prisoners final appeal to the federal courts have usually been denied due to the overly strict set of guidelines that the convicted must adhere to. Many appeals have been denied on time frame. The Mississippi Supreme Court made sure of that by imposing rules that are next to unattainable. With DNA now advanced and able to collaborate guilt or innocence the courts have denied even the request to have that DNA tested, stating a one year time limit has been exceeded.

    A retired former chief justice of the Mississippi Supreme Court is quoted as saying, "Looking back I can't believe I bought into all of that…" "Experience eventually taught me that it really begins with the DA. Once the DA decided he was going to seek the death penalty, it was really all downhill from there." " I wish I had been more courageous", said retired Supreme Court chief justice Edwin Pittman, "A couple of those old cases embarrass me now. We should have been less accepting of Haynes and that culture." Pittman's tenure began as Hayne and West's were just beginning and lasted through most of their careers. He reviewed 46 of Haynes cases and did not throw out any for bad forensics or tainted testimony. He says now he wises he had been more skeptical. "There could be a herd mentality on the court - there was always a strong majority of justices that were just always accepting of the prosecutors and expert testimony."

    It appears that Mississippi, among other states, does not care about justice or innocence. They only care about upholding the process they used to incarcerate and condemn a person to death. Lives are not even worth the cost of testing a DNA kit.

  • Darcia Helle

    This book is a comprehensive, incredibly well researched exploration of the intertwining of politics, law, justice/injustice, and racism in the deep south.

    I read a lot of true crime and sociology, but I've never read a book that explores corruption within our legal system in regards to our coroners and medical examiners. I'm embarrassed to admit that I never considered this angle. The science, we like to think, should be the trustworthy aspect of our justice system. Radley Balko shows us, witho

    This book is a comprehensive, incredibly well researched exploration of the intertwining of politics, law, justice/injustice, and racism in the deep south.

    I read a lot of true crime and sociology, but I've never read a book that explores corruption within our legal system in regards to our coroners and medical examiners. I'm embarrassed to admit that I never considered this angle. The science, we like to think, should be the trustworthy aspect of our justice system. Radley Balko shows us, without question, that all "facts" can be manipulated, or simply eliminated, when convenient.

    What I felt while reading this book was total outrage, disgust, and sorrow. The events portrayed are difficult to align with any conception of justice, even as flawed as I knew the system to be.

    While I have immense respect for the author's undertaking, I did have some problems with the way the book was put together. The story revolves around Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West, as the title suggests, but really this book takes on the entire modern-day political and legal system in rural Mississippi. We have a whole lot of people moving in and out, including judges, lawyers, politicians, medical examiners, doctors, victims, and the accused.

    The scope of this book is enormous and at times lacks focus. This was the crux of the problem for me. The author occasionally takes us wandering into areas that are interesting, but not pertinent. For instance, we're given lengthy education on the history of coroners from the time of the Crusades. Throughout the book, we seem to wobble in and out of the timeline, jumping from one case to another, and then over to a side bit, and then on to something else. Keeping up with all the players, their stories, the cases, and the various tidbits makes for an exhausting reading experience.

    In fairness to the author, the magnitude of these events had to be difficult to wrangle into a neat and concise story. This was not one or two people caught in corruption; this was the entire system, from its core on out. The entire mess is so badly entangled that unraveling it to find the core problem demands we pull out all the many threads. And so I recommend reading this book because, until you see all the pieces, you won't believe the whole picture could be real.

    *I received an ebook copy of this book from the publisher, via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest review.*

  • Sarah

    The facts presented in this book are infuriating and heartbreaking, and I am so glad I read it. The content is 5 star reporting, but my reading experience was closer to 3 stars, because it was kind of dry and took a long time to push myself through it. I think it's really worth a read, and I'm so glad the authors have shed light on this issue. This book focuses on two men who are responsible for testifying to evidence based on incompetent work and/or downright quackery over many years in the Mis

    The facts presented in this book are infuriating and heartbreaking, and I am so glad I read it. The content is 5 star reporting, but my reading experience was closer to 3 stars, because it was kind of dry and took a long time to push myself through it. I think it's really worth a read, and I'm so glad the authors have shed light on this issue. This book focuses on two men who are responsible for testifying to evidence based on incompetent work and/or downright quackery over many years in the Mississippi courts, but it goes deep into the larger picture as well, and how the Mississippi legal system and politicians have also worked together to create a system that has resulted in many poor and/or black defendants being wrongfully convicted. Highly recommended, though I'd love to see a documentary or podcast about this for those that aren't inclined to spend so much time with something so dry (I struggled!).

    *Used for PopSugar 2018 Reading Challenge prompt "True crime."

  • Liz

    One of the key necessities in determining the facts of a crime is in making the story fit the evidence, not the evidence fit the story. This book shows how a complex system of corrupt or stupid attorneys, judges, policemen, a coroner and a dentist managed to convict a number of innocent people In Mississippi over several decades. It boggles the mind that this was allowed to go on for so long.

    Mississippi has consistently ranked near the bottom of the country when it comes to education and govern

    One of the key necessities in determining the facts of a crime is in making the story fit the evidence, not the evidence fit the story. This book shows how a complex system of corrupt or stupid attorneys, judges, policemen, a coroner and a dentist managed to convict a number of innocent people In Mississippi over several decades. It boggles the mind that this was allowed to go on for so long.

    Mississippi has consistently ranked near the bottom of the country when it comes to education and government. So, it should come as no surprise that instead of a psychologist they had a former children’s entertainer, known as Uncle Bunky, conducting police interviews with children.

    That said, the book can be dry in parts and confusing in others. Keeping track of all the names was difficult. The authors tend to go off on tangents. For example, do we really need to know the history of how coroners came into being after the Crusades? I can understand the desire to give us a lot of background. It’s just not always told in a concise or easy to follow manner.

    That's not to say there aren’t lots of interesting facts here. Coroners’ juries were an earlier version of a grand jury. Their declining to identify the party at fault would stop an investigation by Sheriffs or police. This was consistently used to allow lynchings to go unpunished.

    The big surprise here is that Haynes and West weren’t operating in the 1930s or 1950s. They started out in the 1980s and their heyday was the 1990s through the mid 2000s before DNA began to expose their speculations and theories as blatant falsehoods. The stories of how they went about their “business” would be laughable if innocent lives hadn’t been at stake. It makes one realize how gullible folks are when presented with scientific sounding theories. And how willing prosecutors are to go out on a limb to secure a conviction.

    One thing to point out to other readers. This book is much more about the Mississippi medico-legal system (as the authors call it) than about Haynes and West specifically. While it’s a persuasive thesis against Mississippi, it makes for a dry narrative.

    My thanks to netgalley and Perseus Books for an advance copy of this book.

  • Clare

    Listened to in audio format.

    DNF

    This book is undoubtedly well researched but it is a bit heavy going for me.

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