On September 15, 1990, 3-year-old Courtney Smith was taken from her bed in the middle of the night. Her body was found two days later in a pond near her home in Brooksville, Mississippi; she had been raped and murdered. Police investigating the crime interviewed Courtney’s 5-year-old sister, Ashley, who said she saw Levon Brooks, her mother’s ex-boyfriend, take Courtney from her bed. The room was dark, but Ashley said she saw Brooks by the light of the television in the next room. Ashley then identified Brooks from a photo lineup. Brooks swore he had nothing to do with Courtney’s death, but he was arrested and charged with her murder.
At Brooks’s trial in 1992, District Attorney Forrest Allgood called witnesses who testified that alleged bite marks found on Courtney’s body connected Brooks to the murder. The pathologist who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Steven Hayne, testified that marks found on Courtney’s wrist were human bites, and a dentist, Dr. Michael West, testified that the bites matched Brooks’s teeth. On January 22, 1992, Brooks was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
In October 1999, Brooks appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, but his conviction was affirmed. For the next nine years, Brooks remained in prison with little hope for a new trial, but in 2007, new evidence in a similar case – the 1992 rape and murder of 3-year-old Christine Jackson – shed light on Courtney’s murder. Kennedy Brewer had been convicted of Christine Jackson’s murder in 1995, also based on bite-mark testimony from Drs. Hayne and West, but was released on bond in 2006 after DNA evidence cleared him. The Mississippi Innocence Project, which was representing Brewer, then took on Brooks’s case as well.
In 2007, the Innocence Project’s investigations led them to Justin Albert Johnson, a 51-year-old man with a history of sexual assaults against girls and women, who had been living near both Courtney Smith and Christine Jackson when they were abducted and murdered. DNA testing conducted by the Innocence Project linked Johnson to Christine Jackson’s murder – though evidence from Courtney Smith’s murder was too degraded to be tested. When Johnson was arrested in February 2008, he confessed to both murders and told the authorities that he had committed the crimes on his own. A judge vacated the convictions of both Brewer and Brooks at a hearing on February 15, 2008, and Brooks was released on his own recognizance (Brewer had been out on bond since 2007). Prosecutors dismissed all charges against Brooks on March 13 of that year. The men were each granted $500,000 in statutory compensation from the state of Mississippi.
By the time Brewer and Brooks were released, Dr. Hayne and Dr. West had become highly controversial for their shoddy work and inappropriately close relationships with state prosecutors, and they are suspected of providing false medical testimony in numerous cases. The National Association of Medical Examiners says doctors should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year; Dr. Hayne has admitted to performing between 1,200 and 1,800 autopsies annually. Dr. West became particularly infamous for repeatedly providing false bite-mark testimony. He was the subject of investigative reports by 60 Minutes and ABC News; in 1994 he resigned from the American Academy of Forensic Science when the organization began an ethics investigation against him.
In 2009, Brewer and Brooks jointly filed a civil lawsuit against West and Hayne for $18 million dollars. That lawsuit was still pending as of August 2013.
The state of Mississippi paid Brooks $500,000 in compensation.
- Alexandra Gross