Review of The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington Rating*****
Anyone who cares about fairness in our justice system will be outraged by the stories told in this excellent book. You will be outraged by the incompetence of the two men behind the title: Steven Hayne, the cadaver King, and Michael West, the Country Dentist. But you will be equally outraged by the incompetent judges, jurors, prosecutors, and defense attorneys that populate the stories of wrongful convictions that have occurred based on testimony from Hayne and West.
Steven Hayne was a medical examiner who sold himself as an expert witness to a criminal justice system too lazy to question the validity of Hayne’s often ludicrous conclusions. Michael West was a dentist who imprisoned dozens of people based on now-discredited bite mark analysis.
Proponents of the death sentence have long held that no state has ever executed an innocent person. That claim is almost certainly untrue. While there is evidence that a man executed for killing his family in a house fire was innocent, there are too many cases of men who have been exonerated within hours of their execution to think that it has never happened.
A lot of what had passed in earlier decades as reliable scientific evidence has since been proven to be unreliable thanks to exonerations through DNA and other means: hair fiber, blood spatter, handwriting analysis, fire scene analysis, bite mark analysis, ballistics, and even inaccurate fingerprint comparisons have all been used in courts to put innocent people in prison and on death row.
What do Steven Hayne and Michael West have to say when people have gone to prison based on their faulty testimony only later to be exonerated? They deny that their testimony was the deciding factor, or they claim that they still believe that they put the right person behind bars and no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise.
The same is true with the prosecutors like Forrest Allgood, a longtime Missippee District Attorney, who fought against reviewing cases based on the testimony of Hayne and West. Or the appeals courts who over and over rubber-stamped questionable convictions.
Sadly, our criminal justice system is leery of admitting mistakes. Legislators have written laws that make it nearly impossible to reverse wrongful convictions by placing unreasonable demands on defendants.
Federal lawmakers have only made it worse with laws like AEDPA, altering federal code to make it ever more difficult to challenge state verdicts in federal court. The courts still let these witnesses testify at trial – as experts. But years later, when evidence proves them wrong, or the defendant finally finds funds to hire an expert to say as much, the system is all about protecting the verdict. At that point, it no longer wants to hear from experts.
Many people discussed in this book who have been falsely imprisoned based on junk science remain behind bars. If that doesn’t make you outraged, then nothing will.