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Sherwood Brown

Other Mississippi exonerations
On the morning of January 7, 1993, five-year-old Yoichi Boyd walked to her grandmother’s house in Eudora, Mississippi to wait for the school bus. When she walked inside, she saw her aunt, 48-year-old Verline Boyd, dead, apparently hacked to death with a sharp instrument. At about 7:50 a.m., when the school bus arrived, Yoichi told the driver, who summoned the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department.

When police entered the home, they discovered two more bodies, both also with numerous slash wounds: Verline’s 82-year-old mother, Betty, and Verline’s 13-year-old daughter, Evangela. The house had been ransacked. Evangela was naked.

Officers found two partial bloody shoe prints. One was on the floorboards of the front porch of the Boyd home. It appeared to be the front one-third of a sneaker sole. The second was on the threshold of the front door. It was smaller but appeared to police to be from the same shoe. Officers began looking for additional shoe prints. In the front yard and on Boyd Road, which was in front of the house, they found several that looked similar to those on the threshold and porch. They found a series of similar shoe prints on a dirt road between Boyd Road and Barbee Road. Because rain had started to fall by the time police found these prints, they were only able to make a cast of one print on the dirt road.

As the officers continued searching, a “very faint'' similar shoeprint was found on the driveway of a house on Barbee Road. Although police photographed it several times, the photographs were unable to show the shoeprint. At about noon, police spoke to the residents of the home, Al Lee Brown and his wife, Willie Mae, and asked about their son, 24-year-old Sherwood Brown.

At that moment, Brown was 25 miles away at his job in a warehouse in Memphis, Tennessee. Police called Brown and said officers would come to his job to meet him to discuss the murders. When police did not arrive, Brown’s supervisor gave Brown a ride to a bus station. When officers arrived, the business was closed. Lt. Bill Ellis and chief investigator Scotty Wood saw a shoeprint on the warehouse floor that looked similar to the prints found at the Boyd home. They were unable to locate Brown.

Police determined that Verline Boyd worked at the Piccadilly cafeteria in the Whitehaven neighborhood of Memphis. Her supervisor said that she had left work between 8:45 p.m. and 8:50 p.m. on the night of January 6. The Boyd family home was 22.5 miles from the cafeteria—about a half hour’s drive. Because Verline had her car keys in her hand when her body was found, police believed she was killed immediately after arriving home. As a result, police believed that the murders occurred around 9:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on the night of January 6.

On January 8, 1993, Brown called a friend from Eudora, James “Chick” Jones, and asked him to come to the Villa Inn Motel in south Memphis. According to Jones, they spoke for several hours, and he urged Brown to turn himself in.

On January 9, Jones called the sheriff’s department and reported that Brown was at the motel. When police arrived, however, Brown was not there. Shortly after midnight on January 11, police finally found Brown and arrested him for violating his parole for a previous assault conviction. His clothing and shoes were taken by police. A photograph was taken of a cut on his wrist.

During questioning, Brown denied involvement in the murders. He said that on the day of the murders, he got off work at 5:30 p.m. and went to his aunt’s home in Eudora. He said he then went to a local gym where he drank beer and smoked crack cocaine with friends. He said he stopped at a friend’s house, and then walked home, arriving around 8 p.m. as his parents were eating dinner. He said he went straight to bed.

On January 19, police interviewed Jones. He said that when he and Brown were at the motel, Brown “did not admit or deny” committing the murders. Two months later, police interviewed Jones again. He maintained that Brown did not admit to involvement in the murders.

In April 1993, Jones was called before a grand jury. There, for the first time, Jones said that Brown had admitted involvement in the crime. Jones also said that Brown had denied involvement in the crime. No indictment was returned at that time.

In January 1994, Jones was arrested and charged with conspiring to commit grand larceny. While in custody, he gave two statements implicating Brown in the January 7, 1993 murders. In the first, Jones said that while they were at the motel, Brown confessed and said he used a knife. In a second statement, Jones said Brown told him he committed the murders with a “joe blade,” a double-edged heavy-duty tool used to chop weeds in ditches. At the same time, Jones agreed to plead guilty to his pending charges and receive no prison time in return for his testimony against Brown.

In July 1994, a DeSoto County grand jury indicted Brown on three counts of capital murder. In March 1995, he went to trial in DeSoto County Circuit Court before a jury that was selected in nearby Lafayette County due to the publicity about the crime.

The prosecution’s case relied on the physical and forensic evidence, as well as testimony from Jones.

Jones told the jury that Brown admitted he killed the women. Jones said Brown told him that he sexually assaulted Evangela after subduing her with blows to the head. Jones said he lied initially to police and to the grand jury.

Dr. Steven Hayne, a forensic pathologist, testified that he performed autopsies on the three victims. He said that Betty Boyd died from "multiple chop wounds to the head." Dr. Hayne said that a considerable amount of force was required to produce the injuries she sustained. Verline Boyd, who was found face-down by the front door, died from multiple chop wounds to the head as well, he said. Verline also suffered defense wounds to her hands, he said.

Dr. Hayne said Evangela Boyd, like her mother and grandmother, died from multiple chop wounds to her head. Although the girl's nude body was discovered with her bra pulled behind her head, Dr. Hayne found no evidence of sexual assault. He said he used a sexual assault kit to collect “scalp hair, pubic hair, pubic hair combing, saliva, a perineal swab, anal swab as well as vaginal smears and vaginal fluid.” He testified that he submitted the sexual assault kit to the Mississippi Crime Laboratory, but never reviewed the crime lab’s analysis of the kit. Dr. Hayne also found loose, foreign hairs on Evangela Boyd’s body, which he sent to the crime lab.

Dr. Hayne testified that the wounds sustained by all three victims could have been caused by "a machete, a hatchet, an ax, a Kizer blade or similar type weapons, weapons that would have a relatively sharp edge, would have some significant weight and would provide a broad cutting surface."

A forensic scientist from the Mississippi Crime Laboratory, Joe Andrews, testified that none of those hairs or any hair recovered from the clothing and bodies of all the victims had any microscopic characteristics similar to Brown’s hair.

Prior to the trial, the FBI conducted testing on Brown’s left sneaker, and determined that blood was present on the same front portion of the sole that was believed to have left the bloody impression on the porch. This evidence became the centerpiece of the prosecution’s case. The prosecutors argued repeatedly that without it, “we wouldn’t be here.”

The FBI analyzed photographs of the two partial bloody shoeprints found at the Boyd home and the shoeprint cast from the dirt trail. FBI Special Agent Geary Kanaskie testified that he compared these shoeprints to Brown’s sneakers, but “was not able to determine positively whether this particular pair of sneakers did or did not make any of these impressions.” According to Kanaskie, the impressions did, however, “correspond in size and design” to Brown’s shoes. He also testified that the sneakers, which were made by Fila, were popular at that time, and that Fila was the third largest seller of sneakers in the United States.

FBI agent Joseph Errera, who worked in the serology unit, testified that he used a chemical screening test to try to detect blood on both sneakers’ soles. No blood was detected on the right sneaker’s sole. Errera testified that when he tested the left sneaker sole, he found “two areas which … [a] chemical screening test for the possible presence of blood tested positive…One was toward the toe of the left shoe … and one was toward the mid-section.” After obtaining results from the preliminary screening test, he then performed a “confirmatory test for blood” on the two areas of the left sneaker sole. The confirmatory test, however, was negative, which Errera testified meant that he “could not confirm absolutely the presence of blood in either of those areas, merely that the screening test indicated that blood could be in there, but I could not confirm that with subsequent testing.”

Prior to the trial, two forensic odontologists, Dr. Michael West and Dr. Harry Mincer, had examined a cut on Brown's wrist. Dr. Mincer compared the cut to plaster casts of Evangela Boyd’s upper and lower teeth that Dr. West had made at the funeral home. During that examination, Dr. West photographed Dr. Mincer’s attempts to compare the plaster casts to the cut on Brown’s wrist.

Soon after, Dr. West had written a letter to the prosecution, stating that “[t]he wound on the left wrist of Sherwood Brown is a human bitemark. It is a bitemark of great severity and is consistant [sic] with the time of the attack. The bitemark pattern is highly consistant [sic] with the dentition of Evanlie [sic] Boyd.”

Dr. West did not testify at the trial. He was testifying at the Noxubee County Circuit Court trial of Kennedy Brewer, who would be convicted of murder and sentenced to death based on Dr. West’s testimony that Brewer made bitemarks found on the victim.

Dr. Mincer testified that when he compared the plaster cast of Evangela’s upper teeth to the cut on Brown’s arm, he analyzed how the upper teeth “conformed to the marks, whether the arch shape was the same, whether the individual teeth shape were the same, whether the size of the teeth matched, whether all those sorts of things fell together.” Dr. Mincer further explained that “[t]he two front teeth actually line up perfectly in outline. Some people have flat front teeth. Some people have rounded ones. These are kind of about medium, [and] line up perfectly with the biting edges of these teeth.” He also testified that one of Evangela’s upper teeth did not “quite line up because … this is over this bone [on Brown’s wrist], this knob everybody has on their wrist bone,” but that tooth “will line up if you or move it forward over the bone.”

Ultimately, Dr. Mincer concluded “that the [upper] teeth of Evangela Boyd highly probably had made the bitemark on the wrist, the left wrist of Sherwood Brown.”

During cross-examination, however, Dr. Mincer testified that there are different degrees of certainty in bitemark analysis, and that his conclusion that the cut on Brown’s wrist was “highly probably” a bitemark from Evangela Boyd did not rise to the level of “absolute certainty” or even “reasonable certainty.” He later was asked about his error rates in bitemark analysis.

“I thought I was always right,” he said.

Dr. Mincer conceded that when he and Dr. West performed their analysis, they did not follow many of the American Board of Forensic Odontology guidelines for the type of bitemark analysis that was conducted.

A certified fingerprint examiner from the Mississippi Crime Laboratory, Ken Gill, examined the crime scene and found “fingerprints of value” as well as a palm print. These prints were found on the front door of the Boyd home and on the edge of the kitchen sink. Gill testified that based on his analysis, these prints did not belong to Brown. No identification of the prints was ever made.

The defense presented testimony from Dr. Richard Souviron, a forensic odontology expert. Dr. Souviron analyzed the cut on Brown’s wrist, but disagreed with the findings of Dr. West and Dr. Mincer. Dr. Souviron concluded that the cut was “definitely” not a bitemark and, moreover, Evangela’s upper teeth did not match the cut. As Dr. Souviron explained, “This is a cut like somebody would cut their arm on, as it was explained to me, on a piece of rebar which is a piece of round steel used in concrete, and that’s exactly the kind of pattern you would expect to see from something like that.”

Dr. Souviron also testified that he had never seen any bitemark where the person bit down hard enough with his or her upper teeth to cut through tissue but failed to leave any impression whatsoever of his or her lower teeth.

Willie Mae Brown, Brown’s mother, testified that on the night of the murders, Brown came home just before 9 p.m., while she “was at the kitchen table” giving her elderly mother-in-law supper. She recalled the time because the television show “In the Heat of the Night” was on when Brown arrived. She said he arrived before the television show “Matlock” came on at 9 p.m.

Al Lee Brown, Brown’s father, told the jury that Brown came home on the night of the murders, “no later than fifteen [minutes] till nine,” while he was watching “In the Heat of the Night.” Both parents testified that they did not see or hear him leave the house during the night.

The defense presented a copy of the television listings for January 6 published in The Commercial Appeal newspaper, which confirmed that Willie Mae Brown’s testimony was accurate as to the times those television shows aired on the night of the murders.

On March 28, 1995, the jury convicted Brown of one count of capital murder and two counts of non-capital murder. He was sentenced to death.

In December 1996, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed Brown’s conviction and sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case in October 1997.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (Atkins v. Virginia) that executing the intellectually-disabled was unconstitutional, but left the process of determining intellectual disability to the trial courts.

In June 2003, Brown filed an application seeking permission to file a post-conviction petition on the ground that he was ineligible for the death penalty because he was intellectually disabled. In June 2004, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted permission to file that petition.

In 2008, Kennedy Brewer was exonerated by DNA testing that proved Dr. West’s bitemark testimony was wrong. What Dr. West said were bitemarks were in fact insect bites.

That same year, Levon Brooks was also exonerated by DNA testing. Brooks had been convicted of murder in Noxubee County and sentenced to life without parole on the basis of Dr. West’s bitemark testimony.

In 2011, West testified during a deposition in the post-conviction proceedings brought by Leigh Stubbs and Tammy Vance in Lincoln County, Mississippi, 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,” he said, “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.

In November 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted a request for DNA testing filed on behalf of Brown by his pro bono legal team: Tucker Carrington of the Mississippi Innocence Project, John R. Lane of the law firm of Fish & Richardson, and Garland T. Stephens of the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

In May 2013, following a hearing, a judge ruled that Brown was not intellectually disabled. In March 2015, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

In July 2016, Brown’s legal team, which now also included James Douglas Minor Jr. of the law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, filed a motion to vacate Brown’s convictions. The motion cited DNA testing that had been conducted on dozens of pieces of evidence as well as evidence that the bitemark evidence was deeply flawed.

The motion said that DNA testing from two laboratories showed that the blood on the sneaker sole and the blood in the partial shoeprint at the crime scene were unrelated. The blood on the sneaker sole was male blood, and the blood in the partial shoeprint was female.

The motion said that the DNA test results also showed that Dr. Mincer’s conclusion “was almost certainly wrong.” DNA testing on a swab of Evangela Boyd’s saliva that was collected at the autopsy did not find Brown’s DNA.

In addition, DNA tests on the sexual assault kit collected during Evangela’s autopsy showed no DNA from Brown. Instead, the testing showed that Evangela’s pubic hair contained the DNA of some other unidentified male. Tests conducted on Evangela’s bra showed the presence of unidentified male DNA.

The motion noted that in 2004, Dr. West had been suspended by the American Board of Forensic Odontology for misrepresenting evidence and testifying outside his field of expertise. It also noted Dr. West’s statement during the deposition in 2011.

The motion said that two forensic odontologists had reviewed the conclusions of Dr. West and the testimony from Dr. Mincer in Brown’s case. Based on their review, they concluded that Mincer’s claim that it was “highly probable” that Evangela Boyd created the mark on Brown’s wrist “has now been entirely discredited.” Dr. West’s statement that the mark on Brown’s wrist was “highly consistent” with Evangela’s dentition “has no meaningful scientific basis whatsoever.”

The motion declared, “Moreover, another set of leading forensic odontologists reviewed the evidence in this case, and concluded that the cut on [Brown’s] wrist is not a bitemark at all.”

In October 2017, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted the motion for a new trial. Brown’s convictions were vacated. The prosecution announced it would retry the case.

On January 7, 2021, the case against Eddie Lee Howard Jr. in Lowndes County, Mississippi, was dismissed. He had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death based in part on Dr. West’s testimony that Howard made bitemarks on the victim.

On August 24, 2021, nearly four years after Brown was granted a new trial, the prosecution dismissed the charges. During that time, the prosecution had obtained further DNA testing in an attempt to link Brown to the murders, but was not successful.

Brown was released after spending more than 26 years on death row. He subsequently filed a claim for compensation from the state of Mississippi.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/4/2021
Last Updated: 7/30/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1993
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*