The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South

By Blanks, Jonathan | The Cato Journal, Spring-Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South


Blanks, Jonathan, The Cato Journal


The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South

Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington

New York: Public Affairs, 2018, 416 pp.

The stereotypical crime stories of the American Deep South often include openly racist government and corrupt law enforcement. The opposition to the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century was led by figures like Bull Connor, George Wallace, as well as the less widely known Sheriff Willis McCall, men whose words and deeds have made them infamous in American history as caricatures of evil in public office. Men like those made it easy to identify racism, injustice, and the rigged systems they oversaw and protected.

More than half a century later, the machineries of injustice are less obvious to a majority of Americans. We have seen the eradication of de jure Jim Crow, the rise of the black middle class, and African Americans in numerous prominent positions in public life--not just in the historic roles in sports and entertainment, but literature, government, and business. The prisons that overflow with black and brown bodies are out of sight and thus very often out of mind. The aggressive policing that occurs in black ghettos throughout American cities, north and south--and the very existence of those black ghettos in the first place--are mostly just an accepted part of life. An occasional video may show an isolated instance of police abuse or a story will come out about an innocent man left to sit in jail for years without trial, but for the most part, these are blips in the daily lives of Americans who strongly support the police and express at least grudging support of the criminal justice system.

But when people dig a little deeper into any one the thousands of separate state, local, and county criminal justice systems, they may find dysfunctional apparatuses and ambitious people who, with no particular ill will or intent, railroad the innocent into long prison terms or even death sentences. Any given system's protections for the innocent often are undermined by shoddy police investigations, inept or overburdened defense council, and dubious "scientific" evidence that confirms the conclusions already reached by law enforcement and prosecutors. Such was the case for Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, two innocent men who were trapped in a system that functioned--and often still functions--more like a conviction manufacturing machine than an instrument of public justice. While several of the men who made their livings in the Mississippi justice system described in The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist are seriously flawed, even detestable, the story told by journalist Radley Balko and attorney Tucker Carrington is missing that unquestionable villain that intentionally frames the innocent or acts out of hatred of his fellow man. To borrow the term coined by Hannah Arendt, to read this book about the Mississippi justice system in the 1990s is to encounter the banality of evil.

Bestselling author and Mississippi lawyer John Grisham wrote the forward to the book, in which he outlines the eight most common contributing factors at work in convictions of the innocent: bad police work, prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, faulty eyewitness identification, jailhouse snitches, ineffective counsel, "sleeping" judges, and junk science. …

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