Man once on Miss. death row exonerated in 1992 murder case

Published 12:49 am Sunday, February 17, 2008

A man once sentenced to death for the kidnapping and murder of a 3-year-old Mississippi girl was exonerated Friday, more than a week after another man allegedly confessed to the brutal crime.

As Kennedy Brewer’s family and friends celebrated his freedom, the judge granted a new trial for a second man serving time for another child’s murder in the same community. The judge freed that man, Levon Brooks, on his own recognizance — again based on statements authorities said were made by the suspect.

Members of Kennedy Brewer’s family and some attorneys wept in the crowded east Mississippi courtroom as Circuit Judge Lee Howard told Brewer he was a free man. A prosecutor apologized for the miscarriage of justice.

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Asked about all that had happened to him since the child’s death in Noxubee County in 1992, Brewer said, “I ain’t worried about the past. I’m thinking about the future.”

Brewer, now 36, is the first person to be exonerated in Mississippi as a result of post-conviction DNA testing, said the Innocence Project, which handled his case.

The exoneration comes after years of work by Brewer’s appeals attorney, Carrie Jourdan, and the Innocence Project, a New York-based attorneys’ group that assists inmates who have been wrongfully convicted.

District Attorney Ben Creekmore filed a motion to vacate Brewer’s conviction days after the arrest of Justin Albert Johnson, 51, who authorities said told police he raped and strangled 3-year-old Christine Jackson in 1992. The child’s body was found in a creek.

On Friday, Creekmore apologized to Brewer.

“The conviction of an innocent man is a heavy burden for the state to bear,” Creekmore said. “Nothing I can say can give him back the time taken from him or the loss.”

Annie Brewer, Brewer’s mother, sat in a wheelchair during the proceeding and called out “Thanks be to Jesus” as Howard ruled.

“They were telling all these lies on Kenny. I never believed it,” Annie Brewer yelled as family members gathered to embrace her and her son.

Attorneys said Johnson also allegedly confessed to the rape and murder of 3-year-old Courtney Smith in 1990. Brooks, now 48, was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted in her death.

It will be up to prosecutors whether to pursue Brooks’ case further or move to exonerate him.

“I’m so excited,” Brooks said after the ruling. “I really can’t talk right now. I just want to be with my family right now.”

Howard said the evidence that cleared Brewer and supports Brooks would have to remain sealed to protect the legal rights of Johnson, who has been charged with murder in Christine’s death. Johnson hasn’t been charged in the slaying of Courtney.

Both the murdered children and those involved lived in Brooksville, a rural community about 10 miles east of Macon in east Mississippi.

Brewer was the boyfriend of Christine’s mother, Gloria Jackson, when the child was killed. He had been baby-sitting the child the night she went missing. Brewer was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to death, but has been free on bond since last year.

Johnson was linked to Christine’s murder in 2001 when the Innocence Project sent a blood sample — taken soon after the 1992 killing — for DNA testing, said Innocence Project attorney Vanessa Potkin. His DNA allegedly matched semen found on Christine’s body.

The blood sample used in the test had been preserved at the Mississippi State Crime Laboratory for years.

The circumstances of Courtney’s death were similar to Christine’s. Courtney’s mother, Sonya Smith, had dated Brooks in the past. The child was abducted from her grandmother’s home. She was raped and killed and her body was tossed in a nearby pond.

Johnson was convicted on evidence that included the testimony of the 5-year-old sister of the victim and what forensic experts said were bite marks found on the victims.

Innocence Project executive director Peter Neufeld was critical of State Pathologist Stephen Hayne, who conducted the autopsies on the children’s bodies, and identified the supposed bite marks.

Dr. Michael West, a dentist, testified in both cases about bite mark identification.

Attorneys for the defendants said the marks were caused by decomposition, the bodies being in water and animals — not human teeth.

District Attorney Forrest Allgood prosecuted both of the cases, but later recused himself from the Brewer case when he learned that a staff member he hired had previously represented Brewer on appeal.

Neufeld said there should be a criminal investigation of Hayne and West.

“It’s an extraordinary opportunity here,” Neufeld said. “You have people who engaged in misconduct and manufactured evidence, and they’ve done it in dozens of other cases in Mississippi. We just haven’t been able to prove those yet.”

Hayne said last week that he doesn’t know why he’s “being attacked because I didn’t link anybody to this.”

“All I did was present the facts that I saw,” Hayne said. “I did the post-mortem examinations. I didn’t link them or exclude them.”

West did not immediately return phone calls placed Friday afternoon.