Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist by Radley Balko, Tucker Carrington
PublicAffairs: 2/27/18
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 978161039691

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington is a highly recommended account of the corrupt criminal justice system in Mississippi in the 1970s into the 1990s.

This book tells the story of a doctor and a dentist, two of the most audacious and arrogant experts ever allowed in a courtroom.  The focus is on collusion of the medical experts with the legal system in Mississippi. Towards that end, the trials of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks are examples of the ineptitude of the status quo. Both men were wrongly convicted of the sexual assault and murder of two three-year-old girls in rural Mississippi in the 1990s. (The two men were exonerated in 2007.) For over two decades the doctor and the dentist had built a career on providing "expert" testimony for prosecutors in Mississippi.

Steven Hayne was the controversial medical examiner who  bragged of performing over two thousand autopsies in a single year. His notes were vague enough (and not always correct) that he could often assess the atmosphere at the trial and then tailor his testimony to fit what he was observing. Michael West was a dentist who, with no formal training or peer reviewed studies, "assumed the role of an expert in many other fields, such as ballistics, gunshot reconstruction, 'tool mark' patterns, and the analysis not only of teeth and bite marks but wound patterns, bruises, and fingernail scratches." These two testified at numerous trials throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. The questionable autopsies of Hayne will frustrate you (he once wrote in his notes that he removed the uterus and ovaries from a male), but the junk forensic science of West is going to infuriate you. The blatant sexism and racism is also distressing.

"As you turn the pages, you will often be tempted to close this book and either laugh or cry or yell that what happened in Mississippi cannot possibly be true. But it is. It happened in plain view and with the complicity of many who were sworn to uphold the law." Reading The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist will truly be an exasperating, maddening experience as you will wonder why this went on for so long.

That question is answered. In the 1970s and into the 1990s the state legislature was unwilling to provide the budget for a modern-day state medical examiner’s office. Adding to this were the coroners, who were a powerful group who fought against reforms and were protective of the authority of their positions. Finally, prosecutors and law enforcement wanted solved murder cases, even though some knew there were legitimate questions about the quality of the expert testimony of the doctor and the dentist.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is an excellent well-written and researched account of the criminal incompetence that was allowed to occur for way-too-long in Mississippi. The strength of this book is also the weakness: the plethora of information, background, and history is exhaustive. Balko and Carrington have been researching and following this for years and the book is a culmination of that comprehensive coverage. The information runs the gamete between inciting anger and indignation to providing rather tiresome background of the history of coroners. The historical notes can be skipped over for those readers who are more concerned with following the prevailing absurdities of the doctor and the dentist and want to know when they finally were retired from providing "expert" testimony. The book includes extensive notes.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of PublicAffairs via Netgalley.

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