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Levon Brooks

Other Mississippi Exonerations
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 marks found on Courtney’s body were bitemarks that 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 bitemark testimony from Drs. Hayne and West.  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 were suspected of providing false medical testimony in numerous cases.

The National Association of Medical Examiners said doctors should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year; Dr. Hayne had admitted to performing between 1,200 and 1,800 autopsies annually. Dr. West became particularly infamous for repeatedly providing false bitemark 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 dismissed in 2014 after a judge ruled that West and Haynes were immune from damages. The Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal in 2017.
The state of Mississippi paid Brooks $500,000 in compensation.

In 2011, West testified during a deposition in the case of Leigh Stubbs and Tammy Vance that he no longer believed his own testimony regarding bitemark evidence and that the existing science did not support bitemark identification. “When I testified in this case, I believed in the uniqueness of human bitemarks. I no longer believe in that. And if I was asked to testify in this case again, I would say I don’t believe it’s a system that’s reliable enough to be used in court.” Vance and Stubbs were exonerated in 2013.

Brooks died in January 2018 after battling colon cancer for five years.
Three other Mississippi men who were convicted in part based on testimony from Hayne also were exonerated: Tyler Edmonds, Eddie Lee Howard Jr., and LeeVester Brown. West also gave misleading bitemark testimony against Howard.

On August 24, 2021, Sherwood Brown , who had been sentenced to death for a murder in DeSoto County, Mississippi, was exonerated after spending 26 years on death row. He had been convicted in part based in part on Dr. West’s testimony that his teeth left bitemarks on the victim.
 - Alexandra Gross

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Posting Date:  Before June 2012
Last Updated: 10/3/2021
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Rape
Reported Crime Date:1990
Sentence:Life without parole
Age at the date of reported crime:26
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*