Commercial Dispatch

DNA evidence set clear two Noxubee County men convicted of rape and murder

By John Mott Coffey
Dispatch Capitol Bureau

JACKSON -- Two men claiming they were wrongfully convicted in Noxubee County of raping and killing 3-year-old girls in the 1990s could be cleared in court this week, according to The Innocence Project, a group of lawyers who helped persuade state Attorney General Jim Hood to charge another man last week for one of the murders.

"Both of these men are innocent, and they should be fully exonerated very quickly," attorney Peter Neufeld said Friday in a statement issued by the New York-based group that represents the two men.

Kennedy Brewer was convicted of murdering his girlfriend's daughter in 1992, but his conviction and death sentence were later set aside. He was freed from jail in August while he awaits a retrial for the murder of Christine Jackson.

Last week, however, Hood announced he had charged and arrested Albert Johnson of Brooksville for the 1992 murder.

Levon Brooks was convicted and imprisoned for life in 1992 for murdering a girl in what his attorneys say is a similar wrongful-conviction case that was based on bogus evidence.

New evidence, which includes DNA testing and a confession, identified Johnson as the actual killer in both cases, according to The Innocence Project.

Neufeld said a court hearing is set for Thursday morning in Noxubee County. Brewer will appear in court on a motion to dismiss the case against him.

If granted, he would become the first person in Mississippi to be exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, according to The Innocence Project.

The group filed court papers Friday on behalf of Brooks for the Noxubee County circuit judge to vacate his conviction and dismiss the case.

"In two decades of working on these cases, we have never seen a more stark and troubling example of a rush to judgment at the hands of notorious forensic analysts who conspired to commit fraud," Neufeld said.

Forensic dentist Michael West examined bite wounds on Jackson's body and testified they were Brewer's teeth marks. However, questions have been raised about the reliability of West's expertise.

"These cases should haunt Mississippi and the nation, and they should lead to a top-to-bottom review of how the state is investigating and prosecuting cases," Neufeld said.

Brewer's death-sentence verdict was thrown after the state Supreme Court in 2002 ordered DNA evidence be reviewed that shows he didn't rape the girl. However, the court rejected the claims against West.

District Attorney Forrest Allgood said he provided evidence he knew to be true in 1995 to persuade a Lowndes County jury that Brewer was guilty.

"Given the information I had at the time, I'm not prepared to say he was unjustly prosecuted," Allgood said Friday. "The jurors chose to convict him. They believed he was guilty."

However, he added, "If he did not commit the offense, he needs to be out of jail. ... Nobody wants to send the wrong person to jail."

Hood took over Brewer's prosecution in 2006. Allgood was taken off the case because the district attorney had a conflict of interest. Assistant DA Rhonda Ellis had previously worked as Brewer's defense attorney.

Hood said last week he couldn't talk publicly yet about the evidence incriminating Johnson and what could exonerate Brewer. He did point to The Innocence Project as a source of information for what led to Johnson's arrest.

The group is representing both Brewer and Brooks in their efforts be cleared of the murder charges. In a report issued Friday, it said Johnson confessed to the two murders they were charged with. Johnson also assured investigators that he acted alone. The confession was recorded.

Hood said his office will be in court to prove Johnson is guilty of raping and killing Christine Jackson, but he didn't mention Brooks' case.

Columbus attorney Carrie Jourdan said she helped get The Innocence Project involved in Brewer's case. She has represented him in his many court appeals that go back to the mid-1990s.

Noting Brewer's retrial is set for March, Jourdan declined Friday to say much about the case, but she acknowledged the charges against Johnson could help her client.

"I'm hopeful this will have a positive impact on the resolution of the Kennedy Brewer case," Jourdan said.

Brewer, now 37, was taken off death row after the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new hearing in 2002. Judge Lee Howard subsequently ordered a new trial after reviewing the DNA evidence and released him from jail in August.

Brewer is living and employed in the Noxubee County area and resides with his elderly, disabled mother, Jourdan said.

Jourdan has said Brewer's case is the first capital-murder conviction in Mississippi history overturned on the basis of DNA evidence.

DNA tests of semen samples taken from the girl's body show it wasn't Brewer's semen. The tests indicated the semen came from two other suspects, according to evidence Jourdan submitted to the Supreme Court.

Brooks, 49, was sentenced to life behind bars. He's currently at a state prison near Jackson, according to state Department of Corrections records. He was convicted in 1992 of the 1990 rape and murder of his ex-girlfriend's 3-year-old daughter, according to The Innocence Project report.

Similar to the circumstances of the other girl's murder, the child was taken from her home in the middle of the night and her body was later found in a pond near her home.

Forensic analysts falsely claimed that wounds on her wrists were bites marks from Brooks, according to his attorneys.

If Brewer and Brooks are cleared, this will be the first time a case has ended in exoneration after a state attorney general intervened and removed it from a local prosecutor, according to The Innocence Project.

Johnson, 51, made his initial court appearance Tuesday before Noxubee County Justice Court Judge Dirk Dickson. He was denied bail and is being held in the Chickasaw County jail.

The Innocence Project is affiliated with the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University. It works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. The legal group also pushes for reforming the criminal justice system. It says Mississippi's system is flawed -- and points to Brewer and Brooks as victims of it.

"These cases are an urgent call for a thorough review of how crime scene evidence gets analyzed and makes it into Mississippi courtrooms and how we can make sure only the most credible, objective, reliable science is used in criminal cases," Neufeld said.

To date, 212 people nationwide have been exonerated with DNA testing, according to The Innocence Project. Mississippi -- unlike 42 other states -- does not have a law granting post-conviction DNA testing to resolve claims of innocence.

"An extraordinary number of people have helped secure justice for Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, their families and the victims' families," Neufeld said. Best-selling author John Grisham, a former Mississippi legislator who serves on the Innocence Project's Board of Directors, was among those providing assistance in the cases.

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Innocent Imprisoned
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
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Truth in Justice