Book review: The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist, by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington
Despite the relatively low pay of the state positions in forensic pathology, a doctor willing to bend the profession’s guidelines to help supply meet demand could make good money. There are quite a few places across the country where that’s exactly what happened – where doctors have willingly performed significantly more autopsies than the field’s governing bodies recommend. But nowhere did it happen on the scale it did in Mississippi.
In an enlightening forward to this newest look at the American justice process gone awry, John Grisham, who serves on the board of directors of the Innocence Project in New York, lays out the eight reasons that tend to lead to wrongful convictions. This is a topic that’s gotten a lot of attention recently, from a string of other nonfiction books to TV series and podcasts. From there, the authors begin an examination of two men who built up a lucrative business between themselves, as well as boosting their own reputations, while sending an overwhelming number of innocents to prison and sometimes, their deaths.
For twenty years, medical examiner Steven Hayne and his friend, dentist Michael West, ran a racket in Mississippi. Dr. Hayne performed the majority of the state’s autopsies, and West was called in to supply forensic odontology services when Hayne discovered potential bite marks on murder victims’ bodies, or when the prosecution suspected certain marks could be from human teeth. The two employed any number of unscrupulous methods and junk science to back up their claims, which were based on what the party paying them needed the outcome to be.
The book examines two cases in detail that the pair collaborated on, securing convictions against Kennedy Brewer in one and Levon Brooks in the other. Both men were imprisoned for the rapes and murders of two three-year-old girls. Neither were guilty; in fact, one perpetrator was responsible for both of these similar crimes.
The crimes and Hayne’s and West’s roles in them are laid out in utmost detail, so we can see how the two sprang into action when the potential to earn income as expert witnesses for the prosecution arises. To give some introductory examples of their “work” – Hayne performed autopsies in droves, completing many times more than other medical examiners and far beyond the legal allowance. West regularly identified insect activity evidence as bite marks, and created molds of suspects’ teeth that he then used to actually insert bite marks into skin in the guise of seeing whether the two patterns matched.
Hayne didn’t merely bring West on as a consultant and then turn the analysis over to him; he deferred to West in his report. The two were essentially in business together. They advertised themselves to law enforcement agencies in two states. The process they used to tie Brooks to Courtney Smith’s murder had become their modus operandi: Hayne would find suspicious marks, conclude they were bite marks, and then bring West in to “match” them to the chief suspect. It’s a process they had repeated before, and would repeat over and over again.
West was retained by law enforcement and proved most useful to them after they’d already identified a suspect. Then he’d simply twist the evidence by doing things like finding marks on the body that had been previously overlooked and attributing them to bites, throwing in some medical jargon and pseudoscientific speak, and turning on charm during a jury trial to bring the whole thing home. “West confirms whatever suspicions the police have,” someone else puts it succinctly elsewhere. He got paid enormously well for his prep and testimony time, and there you have it.
The book also includes a history of coroners, to help better understand the broken system the two men were able to successfully exploit for two decades. “The popular conception of the coroner’s physician was a broken-down, alcoholic wreck unfit to treat the living, or a sociopathic personality who preferred the company of the dead. It was hardly the company a talented young physician would care to join.”
Something very significant to the doctors’ dirty work, and that I was (naively?) surprised to learn, was that bite mark analysis and other forms of “pattern analysis,” like blood spatter, aren’t very scientific. They’re pattern recognition.
Bite mark analysis, along with fields like tire tread analysis, “tool mark” matching, blood spatter analysis, and even fingerprint analysis, all belong to a class of forensics called “pattern matching.” These fields are problematic because although they’re often presented to juries as scientific, they’re actually entirely subjective.
I now cringe if I see bite mark or blood spatter analysis mentioned on Forensic Files or the like. It makes you aware how much these come into play in murder cases, how heavily they’re relied upon – knowing they can be manipulated and abused at worse, and are shoddy imitations of real science at best, with little differentiation or clarification provided for juries, is troublesome. Granted, West had overwhelmingly crooked methods for using and manipulating bite mark analysis, so we can only hope that others aren’t getting away with the same abuses, but the possibility even existing is horrifying.
Funding, or lack thereof, and politics are major issues that also helped these two stay in business for so long. After pushing out a medical examiner who caused problems for them, the position remained vacant. West said, “What we don’t need is a medical pathologist who wants to argue with other pathologists about cause of death, which has happened in the past.”
Reading that statement after reading about their doings is mind-boggling. As the authors write, that’s EXACTLY what Mississippi needed, and what would have not only kept innocent men out of jail, (some still languishing there) but saved lives.
A Mississippi defense attorney is quoted, “No district attorney in the Deep South stands a chance of reelection if a murder occurs in his or her jurisdiction and somebody does not wind up in prison for it.” We know there’s great pressure to solve crimes, that it’s compounded when they’re particularly heinous or involve children like those examined here. But it should be more motivation to work harder with what real evidence is saying to find the actual perpetrator, instead of manipulating evidence to match an easy suspect. That should be common sense. If it had been done in rural Mississippi, one of the two little girls mentioned here would still be alive.
Hayne, on the other hand, collected lots of dubious certifications, another element that beggars belief. With these realistically entirely insignificant credentials, which weren’t questioned on the stand in court, he could suitably impress juries into believing he held membership in significant organizations in various forensic fields. Here’s an example of one such organization:
The august-sounding American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI) was founded by Robert Louis O’Block, a criminal justice professor who…had been terminated from Appalachian State University in 1991 for plagiarism…
O’Block developed an interest in the field of handwriting analysis. But when he applied for membership with an existing organization of forensic handwriting experts, they rejected him. So he decided to form his own credentialing organization for handwriting and put himself in charge. In 1992 he founded the American Board of Forensic Handwriting Analysts. Fraud magazine reported in 2012 that as O’Block expanded his group to other disciplines, he also hired his first national training director for the organization, a high school graduate with no college experience who claimed he could enlarge women’s breasts through hypnosis. (The breast-enlarging hypnotist would later resign as a result of his own doubts about O’Block’s credibility.)
Yes, you know things have gone terribly awry when the breast-enlarging hypnotist doesn’t believe in you anymore. And all of that is hilarious (including that Fraud magazine exists – reminds me of 30 Rock when Jack Donaghy references Meetings magazine!) but wait: it’s a lot less funny when you consider that organizations like this are “endorsing” fake specialists and providing crucial analysis and testimony in criminal cases, putting potentially innocent people in prison and sometimes on death row. It’s so terrifying I can’t believe it’s real. This whole book is like that.
Although at times some heavy focus on facts and figures made it somewhat dry in parts, and it fell a little on the long side and could’ve used some streamlining, it’s an undeniably important book with fascinating revelations that deserved the thorough treatment they’re getting here. We need to be much more aware of what comprises certain elements of our criminal justice systems, and how and why weaknesses are being abused.
Excellent if frightening reportage on topics that should be front and center in the criminal justice conversation. Verdict: 4/5
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository, a great site offering free worldwide shipping.
It means I get a small commission (at no extra expense to you) if you buy via these links.
I’m never paid to promote or review any title.