Hearing on motion to exonerate man in child murder set for Friday

Published 6:02 pm Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The three men all lived in the same Mississippi town where two little girls were brutally killed in the early 1990s. Two of the men were convicted and went to prison. Now, the third man allegedly has confessed to both crimes.

On Friday, Kennedy Brewer could be exonerated of the 1992 rape and murder of 3-year-old Christine Jackson. Last week, authorities charged Justin Albert Johnson, 51, in the child’s death.

A hearing has been scheduled for Friday in Noxubee County Circuit Court to hear District Attorney Ben Creekmore’s motion to dismiss the charge that once put Brewer on death row.

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Among the pieces of evidence against Johnson are the alleged confession and DNA linking him to the crime, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group of attorneys that helps inmates believed to be wrongfully convicted.

Attorney Tina Ferrell of Macon was appointed to represent Johnson, according to the county’s circuit clerk’s office. But Ferrell said Monday that she had not yet been contacted by the court to be Johnson’s public defender.

Judge Lee J. Howard will decide whether to accept Creekmore’s motion, which would exonerate Brewer, a mentally retarded man who was the boyfriend of Christine’s mother when the child was killed.

Also on Friday, Innocence Project attorneys will seek to expedite proceedings to have the 1992 conviction of Levon Brooks vacated.

Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1990 murder of 3-year-old Courtney Smith. Like Christine, the child was abducted from her home and raped before she was killed. Her body was found in a nearby pond.

The little girls and the men lived in Brooksville, a town of 1,151 in east Mississippi near the Alabama state line.

The Innocence Project said that Johnson had confessed to both slayings, though he has not been charged with Courtney’s murder.

Unlike in the Brewer case, there’s no DNA evidence to link him to Courtney’s murder, said Vanessa Potkin, a staff attorney for the Innocence Project.

Potkin said on Monday that a rape kit performed on Courtney didn’t yield results because “the way it was collected prevented successful DNA testing when it was re-examined.”

Potkin believes the confession and the “modus operandi” of the cases should be sufficient to exonerate Brooks.

“These crimes were identical and committed in the same fashion,” Potkin said Monday. “Here you have two children abducted from their homes and killed, sexually assaulted and disposed of in a nearby body of water. These crimes occurred within a short period of time and less than three miles apart.”

Forrest Allgood, who prosecuted both cases, said the evidence against Johnson in Courtney’s murder will be presented to a grand jury. He declined to comment further on Brooks’ case.

“I haven’t looked at our files on Brooks. I haven’t gone through my material yet,” Allgood said Monday.

Allgood eventually recused himself from the Brewer case when he learned a staffer he had recently hired had previously represented the defendant on appeal.

Attorney General Jim Hood, who was contacted by the Innocence Project about the cases, isn’t opposed to the attempt to have Brooks’ conviction vacated.

“If the man is innocent, I want him out,” Hood said. “But if he had some involvement, we need to determine that before his release.”

Potkin said testimony from the 5-year-old sister of the victim and what a dentist testified were human bite marks found on the child’s body were the evidence used to convict Brooks.

She said Brooks was working at a nightclub at the time Courtney was abducted and several witnesses testified that they had seen him there.

Brooks has served most of the last 16 years behind bars in the Mississippi Penitentiary at Parchman. He is now housed at a prison in Rankin County, she said.

The Innocence Project had been looking at Brooks’ case in connection with Brewer’s for several years. The group officially began representing Brooks in 2007.

Brewer, after serving years in various prisons, was released on bond last year pending a new trial after his attorney and the Innocence Project pushed for an appeal of his conviction based on DNA testing that proved that semen found on the child’s body didn’t belong to Brewer.