Episode 2 of Netflix series The Innocence Files looks at the freeing of 2 innocent suspects, faulty evidence, and a prison with historical links to slavery.
In its season 1 premiere, The Innocence Files examined the convictions of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer in Mississippi for separate toddler murders. Episode 2 doesn’t stray far from Noxubee County, Mississippi, and the Parchman Mississippi State Penitentiary. Reporter R.H. Brown says that bite marks were basically the only evidence in both cases.
Forensic Odontologist Richard Souviron shows us some tooth testing, using a mold of serial killer Ted Bundy’s teeth. Dr. Souviron’s bite mark analysis was key to getting Ted Bundy convicted for some infamous sorority house murders in Florida.
Adam Freeman, former President of the American Board of Forensic Odontology (ABFO), even says bite mark analysis skyrocketed in trials after the Bundy case. That’s one reason it’s interesting to see Souviron’s opinions stacked against those of another successful Forensic Odontologist, Dr. Michael West.
It’s difficult to put it lightly: This episode of The Innocence Files goes even further to discredit West’s analysis than the premiere (which wasn’t very flattering, either). There’s another iffy quality about the convictions of Brooks and Brewer: Neither one seemed to have criminal records. Kennedy Brewer even says he never even had a traffic ticket before, yet here he was being treated as a maniac.
When he heard of DNA cases being used by The Innocence Project, he had to get in touch with co-founders, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck.
It’s not all good with Allgood
As with many trials, one can be skeptical of claims that someone didn’t do it. Whether innocent or guilty, plenty of people will make that claim, and will often have others defending it. In the case of Kennedy Brewer, though, there was a bizarre legal fight even after exculpatory evidence arrived! It couldn’t be much simpler: Christine Jackson’s DNA test excluded Kennedy Brewer as a source of semen, and there was no other evidence possibly linking Brewer to the crime. You’d think they might release him ASAP, right? Well, not quite.
After 9 years of incarceration, they still didn’t dismiss the case, thanks to DA Forrest Allgood. On what grounds? He tells The Innocence Files that the DNA revelation meant Brewer didn’t rape the girl, but not that he didn’t kill her! Does he cite any evidence that he killed her, or was even present at all? No.
Not enough for the lack of a smoking gun? Okay, try this on for size: Allgood speculates that the child might have been sold for crack rock, then does not provide evidence of that claim, either.
It’s yet more baseless speculation and obviously rooted in stereotypes. That’s potentially unsettling even as a hypothetical, general claim, but in this case, Allgood is employing the baseless speculation on a specific person: Kennedy Brewer.
In 2004, Allgood worked to retry to the case. Closer to the present, we see Innocence Project’s Peter Neufeld and Vanessa Potkin themselves visit the Christine Jackson house. They demonstrate that nearly anyone could have kidnapped Christine from the window.
Shortly after this, they demonstrate how, rather than human bitemarks, the “teeth” imprints in those cases likely came from crawfish (they show how crawfish will feed on the body of a stillborn pig).
Levon Brooks, different yet the same
In studying the Brewer case, the Innocence Project only learned about Levon Brooks after asking townspeople if they had any similar murders. Unfortunately, the Courtney Smith case had significant hurdles that the Brewer case didn’t:
The rape kit was contaminated. In other words, their case couldn’t rely as much on physical evidence. However, there were weaknesses in the case against Levon Brooks. For starters, it used the interviews conducted by “Uncle Bunky” of Courtney Smith’s 5-year-old sister, Ashley.
Obviously, a 5-year-old might not even grasp the concept of death, let alone properly provide or exclude evidence. In fact, Ashley initially didn’t even mention anything about her sister’s abduction, suggesting she may not have witnessed anything.
The Innocence Files even reveals Ashley as saying the man escaped in an airplane. So, basically, like with the Brewer case, there was very little evidence actually employed here, yet they still got two convictions.
Racism? Also, a new suspect emerges
While some might criticize The Innocence Files for “racializing” the story, the series provides some “No duh” evidence that, yes, racism might have figured into the case. There are some damning facts about Parchman Mississippi State Penitentiary itself, actually.
We are shown prisoners picking cotton in 2005, which might send a shiver up one’s spine if one has negative feelings about, you know, making human slaves work in a cotton field. However, the evidence is incontrovertible: We are shown the footage.
Then we are informed that prisoners who didn’t work hard enough were actually whipped until 1972. That’s right, and it’s not a good look for the system down in Mississippi.
In fact, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History even compares the prison to an “antebellum plantation” and “operated on the basis of a plan proposed by Governor John M. Stone in 1896.” Stone himself disenfranchised about 90% of black voters by establishing poll taxes and literacy tests.
That aside, the Innocence Project also did more to find alternate suspects (yes, in a normal world, there is supposed to be a pool of possible suspects one eliminates over time, not just one suspect to latch onto because he (or she) “looks guilty”).
Justin Albert Johnson became a new suspect, and he actually had a relevant criminal record of breaking into people’s homes and sexual assault. During the retrial, the Innocence Project tested DNA again. Kennedy Brewer was excluded and Johnson was matched to the crime. He confessed to the crime in 2008.
At first, Johnson seemed to go for the insanity defense, talking about demons in his head telling to hurt the little girl. He also initially denied killing Courtney Smith but, thankfully, confessed to that murder as well.
However, interestingly, he denied biting them. It leads to an interesting question: Why would he admit to raping and murdering them, but deny biting them? It seems the evidence may have been faulty, much as the Innocence Project maintained all along.
Dr. Michael West still maintains that the two men bit the girls’ arms, despite Souviron noting flaws in West’s technique. Specifically, if you do direct comparisons — that is, placing the mouth cast onto the actual body — you might actually create new marks.
Also, let’s not forget about the crawfish example, or that even the confessed murderer denied leaving any bitemarks.
Getting defensive, West says “you’re a blithering idiot” if you doubt the two men’s involvement, adding that “The truth will defend me.” Then, as if to offer us evidence of racial bias, West paraphrases the Confederate slogan of “Deo vindice,” or “God’s our vindication.” Why would he further sabotage his own image like this? Who knows? Still, it’s his own doing.
Brooks and Brewer had a joint hearing, both being freed to some uproarious applause. Forrest Allgood dares suggest that the system worked because neither of the guys died (way to restore confidence!).
These wins inspired the Innocence Project to seek out more bite mark conviction cases. The episode ends by mentioning Keith Allen Harward.
What are your thoughts on The Innocence Files and the Innocence Project? Let us know in the comments!