Exonerated Miss. men sue over bite mark testimony

Published 1:19 am Sunday, April 5, 2009

Two Mississippi men wrongfully sent to prison have filed federal lawsuits against the medical experts who testified the men left bite marks on two slain children.

Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both of Noxubee County, have filed suit in U.S. District Court in Jackson against dentist Dr. Michael West and Dr. Steven Hayne, a former state pathologist.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, said Brewer “suffered immeasurably: He was branded a child rapist and murderer and he was imprisoned for 15 years — seven awaiting execution on Mississippi’s death row — for heinous crimes he did not commit.”

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Brooks’ nearly identical complaint contended the wrongful actions of Hayne and West were committed with malice and reckless disregard for the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights. The suit said both men were acting under what is known as “the color of law” — meaning the alleged crime was committed while they were acting in their official capacities.

Hayne’s attorney, Dale Danks of Jackson, filed a response in federal court on Friday asking that the lawsuits be dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired. Danks also said Hayne has immunity under a state law that protects state employees from legal action.

The lawsuits filed in February represent only one side of the legal argument. Plaintiffs’ attorney Rob McDuff of Jackson said Friday he’s still waiting for a response from West.

“It took a while to serve them with the papers because it was hard to track down West,” McDuff said.

Attorney Robin Roberts of Hattiesburg, who has represented West in other cases, said he had not seen West, whose dentist office is now closed, in at least a year.

According to the lawsuit, West was suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontology in 1994 for overstating the certainty of his findings in cases. The suit also said he was disciplined by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences for disregarding professional standards and misrepresenting data to support his opinions.

The lawsuits are the latest fallout from the Brooks and Brewer cases. Last year, both men were exonerated in the separate murders of two 3-year-old girls. The state in 2008 terminated its contract with Hayne to perform autopsies in criminal cases.

The shocking crimes occurred in the early 1990s. Both girls had been strangled, sexually assaulted and their bodies dumped in a body of water. Brewer was the boyfriend of the mother of the girl he had been accused of killing. Brooks was the ex-boyfriend of his alleged victim’s mother.

Hayne performed the autopsies on both, wrote in his reports about abrasions “suggestive of bite marks,” and requested West be advised of his findings, according to the lawsuit.

West took impressions of the suspects’ teeth and testified that the marks had been made by the men. In Brewer’s case, he said the marks were made by his two front teeth only.

Brewer was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to death by lethal injection. However, a DNA test of semen recovered on the victim, Christine Jackson, found that it could not belong to Brewer. At that time, Brewer was removed from death row, but remained incarcerated.

Brooks was convicted in 1992 and sentenced to life in prison for the death of Courtney Smith.

Brewer and Brooks were cleared of the convictions after a third man, Justin Albert Johnson, formerly of Noxubee County, allegedly confessed to both crimes. Authorities said the DNA found on Christine allegedly linked Johnson to her murder.

Brewer’s case was taken on by the New York-based Innocence Project, which impaneled top forensic odontologists from England, Canada and the U.S., who concluded that West had misinterpreted the purported bite-mark evidence in the Brewer case.