Books

Trials and Errors

Two powerful new books find the justice system guilty

photo: Brittany Nailon

The phrase “Southern justice” carries enough cultural stink to appear in lists of oxymorons, right alongside “authentic replica” and “jumbo shrimp.” Open to debate, perhaps, is whether this reputation is currently and not just historically warranted—that is to say, whether certain perversions in the justice system remain peculiarly Southern, either by code or custom. Two new books—one a memoir by a man wrongfully imprisoned on Alabama’s death row, and the other a blistering exposé of Mississippi’s bungle-prone process of investigating deaths—don’t explicitly map this distinction, but, taken together, they lay bare the amount of injustice baked into the South’s justice system.

Mississippi’s problem began, as do most murder mysteries, with dead bodies. As Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington report in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South, for most of its history the state left the forensic analysis of corpses in the hands of elected county coroners, with scarce oversight. This proved ideologically convenient, up through the civil rights era (witness the official cause of death for civil rights worker Michael Schwerner, shot and killed in 1964: “unknown”), but became ineffectual as coroners farmed out the work to private pathologists.

Enter Steven Hayne, the “Cadaver King” of the title, who began performing autopsies there around 1986—lots of them, as many as 80 percent of the state’s—and for more than twenty years was the go-to guy for prosecutors, his analyses molding almost perfectly to their arguments. Along with his sidekick Michael West, a small- town dentist and self-styled bite mark expert, Hayne made a lucrative living examining corpses and testifying in trials as an expert witness.

Except the testimony Hayne and West provided was far from expert. It was at times sloppy, prejudicial, and/or downright misleading. Ask Kennedy Brewer, who was sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter. Or Levon Brooks, sentenced to life in prison in 1992 for the murder of another three-year-old girl. (Both were freed, years later, after DNA evidence identified the man who killed the girls.) Balko and Carrington—a journalist and an attorney, respectively—enact their own prosecution in this book, convincingly and devastatingly, yet Hayne and West emerge almost as secondary villains. The system they exploited—and the legislators who turned a blind eye to its deficiencies—are due the fiercest scorn. And owed the swiftest reevaluation: the countless people who still languish in Mississippi prisons based upon Hayne’s and West’s testimony, some of whom may well be innocent.

Anthony Ray Hinton can tell you exactly how they feel, and does, with spectacular grace, in The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row. Hinton was a twenty-nine-year-old warehouse worker when he was charged with the 1985 murders of two Birmingham restaurant managers. He was poor, he was black, he’d had some minor scrapes with the law, and his public defender botched his defense. Though patently innocent, Hinton was sentenced to die in the electric chair. The Sun Does Shine recounts his three decades on death row: his grueling legal struggles, the way the stench of burning flesh drifted in as fellow inmates were executed. But also, unexpectedly, the way Hinton used his imagination to survive, the way elaborate day dreams—one involving the Queen of England—kept him sane. The Sun Does Shine is as moving and inspiring as memoirs get. It’s impossible not to shed a tear—or really a flood of them—when the U.S. Supreme Court vacates Hinton’s conviction, or when on his first night of freedom he sleeps on a bathroom floor because the hard surface and tiny room are what he’d become accustomed to. Yet it should also be impossible to finish this book without a head full of rage for all Hinton had to endure, and for all he lost. Kennedy Brewer, exonerated in 2008, summed it up this way: “The system’s gonna do what the system’s gonna do.” But no one, after reading these two books, can dare call that justice.