Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington – The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South
Disclosure: Balko was briefly a colleague about 15 years ago.
Mississippi is likely a bit of an outlier regarding its dysfunctional criminal justice system. But the vividness of its stories Balko and Carrington tell here applies nationwide. The differences from other states are in degree, not in kind. Two of the main themes explored in this book are braggadocio and incompetence, and they go together very closely in this book.
Hayne the medical examiner and West the bite-mark analyst both exude confidence and are quick to puff up their already-inflated credentials. But sloppiness, poor standards, ethical violations, personal enrichment schemes, and general incompetence mar their work and have put numerous innocent people in jail–some on death row. Often in error but never in doubt, Hayne and West repeatedly double down on their mistakes, rather than admit to them when caught. They even tampered with evidence. Hayne, on video, once created bite marks on a dead child’s body that eventually put an innocent man in jail for murder. Imagine doing that to another person and having that on your conscience–or being the person wrongly jailed for murdering a child while the real killer still ran free.
Their eventual fall from grace was a long time coming. The delay was due to a number of factors, from lingering racism to institutional inertia and public indifference. Many of the injustices Hayne and West committed will never be put right, and they are far from the only ones at fault. Systemic problems are what make such actions possible. Reforms that don’t target these larger systemic problems will not have lasting benefits.
If there is a silver lining, Balko and Carrington are at least able to tell the stories of some people whose stories have better, if still unhappy, endings, such as Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, who are now free. Carrington’s group, the Innocence Project, is devoted to making more such stories come true.
Balko and Carrington also give a fascinating tour of the history of forensics and criminal investigation, and ably explain which techniques are junk science and which are useful. They also give the historical context for why Mississippi’s criminal justice system is in such bad shape. Racism is still very much alive, and cultural change is just as important for criminal justice reform as any suite of policy or personnel changes. Sadly, the process will likely take generations more.
Fortunately, Balko and Carrington are doing as much as anyone to help right those wrongs, in Mississippi and across the country. They could use some company. Hopefully this book will gain them some.