Sept. trial of Miss. man in toddler deaths set

Published 5:58 pm Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Mississippi man accused of the “bite mark” killings of two toddler girls in the early 90s, sensational crimes for which two innocent men were convicted and later exonerated, is scheduled to face trial in September.

But lawyers said a planned mental examination of the defendant would likely delay the case further against Justin Albert Johnson.

Johnson had been indicted on two counts of capital murder in Noxubee County Circuit Court, charged in the 1990 killing of Courtney Smith and the 1992 slaying of Christine Jackson.

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Both 3-year-old girls lived in Brooksville, a small community in one of Mississippi’s poorest counties. Abducted from their homes, the children were sexually assaulted and their bodies dumped watery graves — a creek and a pond.

Unanswered questions about the supposed bite marks on the tiny corpses — whether made by crawfish, insects or human teeth — lingered for the past decade.

The killings initially were blamed on two other Noxubee County men, both recently cleared of convictions and freed from prison.

Kennedy Brewer, a former boyfriend of Christine Jackson’s mother, was sentenced to death in 1995 for that child’s murder. DNA evidence proved that he didn’t rape the child and he was eventually taken off death row and released. Levon Brooks was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison for Courtney’s death.

Both men were released earlier this year following an alleged confession by Johnson and the emergence of DNA evidence linking Johnson to Christine’s attack, according to the nonprofit Innocence Project. The lawyers’ advocacy group represented both men.

Shane Tompkins, one of Johnson’s lawyers, said a September trial is scheduled in circuit court for Johnson, who has pleaded innocent to all charges. But he said the mental examination of the defendant is still pending in the state hospital system.

“There’s no telling when he will get the mental exam,” Tompkins said.

Johnson is being held without bond at the Noxubee County Jail in Macon.

District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who also prosecuted the cases in the 1990s, agreed it’s uncertain when Johnson might go to trial.

Brewer and Brooks were convicted, in large part, on the testimony of forensic odontologist, Dr. Michael West, and state pathologist, Dr. Steven Hayne, who both had identified bite marks on the victims’ bodies. West, a Hattiesburg dentist, had testified at the trials that wounds on the girls were caused by the suspects.

A panel of forensic experts that examined the Brewer case said the wounds on the victim were not human bites at all, but were probably caused by crawfish and insects nibbling on the corpse, decomposition, and rough handling when the body was pulled from the pond where it was found.

Brooks’ lawyers said West misidentified scrapes as bites.