Miss. man cleared in 1990s child murder case

Published 7:33 pm Friday, March 14, 2008

Levon Brooks, who spent 16 years in Mississippi’s prison system for a crime he didn’t commit, was exonerated Thursday, receiving an apology from a prosecutor.

“I can’t give you your life back, but I want you to know I believed in what I was doing. For whatever part I played in your prosecution, I’m truly sorry,” District Attorney Forrest Allgood told Brooks during a hearing in Macon to dismiss rape and capital murder charges.

Brooks, 44, was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 3-year-old Courtney Smith, the child of his former girlfriend. Last month, Justin Albert Johnson allegedly confessed to the child’s 1990 murder and a second child killing that occurred two years later.

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Brooks, of Brooksville, had little to say after the hearing in Noxubee County Circuit Court before Judge Lee Howard. When asked about Allgood’s apology, he responded, “I accept it.”

As for his future, Brooks said he’s focused on caring for his elderly mother.

Evidence against Brooks included an eyewitness, who has since said she’s not certain if Brooks was the man who abducted her sister, and the testimony of Dr. Michael West, a forensic odontologist who has come under intense criticism for his testimony in criminal cases. West testified that bite marks on the victim’s body were caused by Brooks.

State Pathologist Steven Hayne initially identified the bite marks during his autopsy of the girl, but defense attorneys in the case say the marks couldn’t have been caused by human teeth as they occurred after the child had drowned in the creek where she was discarded.

An assistant who answered the phone at Hayne’s Rankin County office said he wasn’t available. West didn’t return a call made to his Hattiesburg office on Thursday.

About 50 people gathered at the courthouse in Macon, including lawyers from the Innocence Project, which takes on the cases of inmates believed to be wrongly imprisoned.

Brooks’ exoneration comes weeks after another Brooksville man, Kennedy Brewer, was cleared in the 1992 murder of Christine Jackson. Brewer had been sentenced to death for the slaying. However, DNA evidence proved that he didn’t rape the child and he was eventually removed from death row and released from prison last year.

A panel of experts, at the request of the Innocence Project, reviewed the evidence in Brewer’s case and concluded the marks on Christine’s body were likely caused by insects or animals nibbling on the decomposing body which was left in a pond.

Authorities say the semen found on Christine’s body matched Johnson’s DNA. Johnson allegedly confessed to the murder after authorities confronted him with the DNA evidence. He’s only been charged in Christine’s death. Allgood has said a grand jury will decide whether to indict Johnson in Courtney’s murder.

Innocence Project co-director Peter Neufeld again criticized Hayne and West about the misidentified bite marks.

“They’ll say anything you want them to say,” Neufeld said.