Review: The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist – A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko & Tucker Carrington



Public Affairs | 2018

Filed Under: *flips a table and screams*

Well, shit.

This book is sobering AF.

It’s robust, in-depth and densely investigated from every angle, with the authors conducting over 200 interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of court documents to deftly present to readers all the ins and outs of a corrupt system.

I’m wholly impressed with this nonfiction account of Mississippi’s completely fucking horrific justice system and two men in particular who should be punched in the throat every time they step outside.

Like, top to bottom, what the actual fuck are we doing as a society that anything in this book was allowed to happen?

I took some time after reading this before writing my review because I needed to collect my thoughts and emotions – namely rage. Now that I’m sitting here writing this, I’m realizing I’ve actually not gathered myself at all and I’m back to confusion, rage and endless judgement.

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Broadly, this book looks at bad forensics, institutionalized racism in the justice system and shitty white men finding loopholes galore because of laws written by other shitty white men and other other shitty white men willing to cover asses to “get the job done,” so that in the end, all the shitty white men are richer and more powerful at the expense of truth, justice and people’s freedom.

It’s fucking disgusting, honestly. But not surprising either.

In 1990s Mississippi, two 3-year-old girls are taken from their homes, sexually assaulted and murdered within close succession of each other. One seriously disturbed man is guilty, but two other (Black) men – Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks – are arrested and subsequently convicted, collectively spending thirty years behind bars based on bad forensics and bad police work, only later exonerated by DNA evidence.

Two men, in particular, are responsible. They exploited and thrived in this corrupt system like pigs in shit.

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The absolute assholery that is Dr. Steven Hayne and Dr. Michael West is chronicled in this nonfiction book, exploring how they amassed power and prestige by peddling junk pseudoscience.

The primary antagonists in this story are Steven Hayne, the state’s former de facto medical examiner, and Michael West, a prolific forensic dentist. A third is the state of Mississippi itself—not its people, but its institutions. In a larger sense, blame rests on courts—both state and federal—media, and professional organizations that not only failed to prevent this catastrophe but did little to nothing even after it was clear that something was terribly wrong. What you’re about to read didn’t happen by accident.

While Brooks and Brewer are mainly highlighted in this book, the authors also identify a stunning array of other wrongful convictions that were unquestionably sealed by Hayne’s and West’s testimonies on their “forensic findings.” And that aspect really showcased how gullible people can be when presented with theories that are actually just fancy lies told with confidence, and how willing prosecutors are to convict people without any thought as to someone’s guilt or innocence. It’s all about closing the case, no matter what mistakes you made and what lives you destroy.

Hayne was shockingly reprehensible and a ridiculous liar. When the authors plainly lay out the math of just how many autopsies Hayne was doing, I was like…


Hayne, at the height of his bullshit, was responsible for 80% of the autopsies in Mississippi. That’s roughly 1700 a year, which is physically impossible even if, as Hayne tries to explain it away, he never took days off. For reference, the National Association of Medical Examiners states that performing more than 325 autopsies a year is essentially malpractice. And here Hayne is doing 1700. His mistakes and lies and half-assing it are on full display when his autopsies make no fucking sense, like in when case where he notes that he removed the uterus and ovaries from a male body.


West is either a master bullshit artist or an autodidact for the ages.

Hayne’s partner in (literal) crime is Michael West, a dentist. Just a dentist. Sometime in the ’80s, he attended a conference on forensic dentistry and when he got home he started knocking volunteers out with anesthetic and having other volunteers bite them really hard to test his new theories, leading him to eventually claim and tout in court that he can identity bite marks months after the bite was made. It’s an ultraviolet method that he calls, without a hint of irony, the “West Phenomenon” …because no one can see it but him. Seriously.

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You can tell by the events in the book that West became addicted to the acclaim and power that came from being an “expert” in his field – a field he has no training for, lest we forget – so he ups the ante, eventually giving “expert” testimony on things like wound pattern analysis, gunshot reconstruction, fingernail scratch analysis, trace metal analysis, video enhancement, pour pattern analysis, tool-mark analysis, arson investigation and shaken-baby syndrome.

The man literally has NO CREDENTIALS for any of this shit and yet he claims to have investigated over 5800 deaths in Mississippi.

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West is quoted in the book as saying his error rate was, “something less than my saviour, Jesus Christ.”

I can’t even. WTF.

My jaw was on the floor (and that happened a lot with this book) when the fucking FBI said that they couldn’t make any clear conclusions from security footage of a suspect because it was too grainy and outside their reconstruction skills, but then in comes West saying he cleared up the video and could see everything about the suspects clearly, but he couldn’t show the video in court. And somehow that was allowed and led to a conviction. The FBI can’t do it, but a fucking dentist could?

Sure Jan GIF

Honestly, this whole thing would be laughable if real lives hadn’t been so drastically affected.

We’ve got a fucking fraud and liar for a medical examiner and a narcissistic charlatan for a forensic jack-of-all-trades, who literally tamper with forensic evidence to meet their own wanted ends and bring nothing but pseudoscience to court, convincing juries that it’s peer-reviewed accepted science. And the prosecutors didn’t care about any of this, as long as they got the win.

The book weaves a disturbing and outrageous story about the egregiousness of Hayne and West, the wrongful convictions of Brooks and Brewer, the history of medical examiners, the politics of the justice system and how the court system will bend itself around laws whenever it can to secure convictions and never admit its mistakes.

It’s often said that the wheels of justice grind slowly. That isn’t always true. When it comes to convicting people, they can move pretty swiftly. It’s when the system needs to correct an injustice—admit its mistakes—that the gears tend to sputter to a halt.” 

In one insane example, a defendant convicted on the testimony of Hayne petitions the court for a new trial after Hayne is officially discredited as a medical examiner. Seems simple enough – if you are put away partly because of a fraud presenting fraudulent evidence, of course, you should get a new trial. Duh!

However, the law states that a defendant must file their petition within one year of discrediting. In this case, the prosecution argued that the media had been talking about Hayne being a fraud for five years. Even if the official discrediting hadn’t happened within that five years, the court ruled that the defendant “should have discovered this information” sooner. So using one case, the court acknowledged that Hayne was a fraud while simultaneously ruling that it was too late for anyone convicted off of his autopsies to have their cases revisited.

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Ain’t that some shit?

Just as a cockroach scurrying across a kitchen floor at night invariably proves the presence of thousands unseen, these cases leave little room for doubt that innocent men, at unknown and terrible moments in our history, have gone unexonerated and been sent baselessly to their deaths

So yeah, this book fucked with me emotionally. It’s eye-opening and sobering and will have you grateful for things like The Innocence Project, but angry that we need The Innocence Project at all.

This is pretty heavy, dry reading at times, however. It’s full of medical and legal inner workings, political workings and so much history that explores just exactly how something like this metastasizes. If you’re in it for the true-crime aspect, it’s not very robust. The bulk of this book is about putting people on blast, exposing the bad guys pretending to be good guys. and refusing to leave any doubt about who is truly guilty in Mississippi – not some of the people behind bars, but the people who put them there.


After two three-year-old girls were raped and murdered in rural Mississippi, law enforcement pursued and convicted two innocent men: Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. Together they spent a combined thirty years in prison before finally being exonerated in 2008. Meanwhile, the real killer remained free.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist chronicles how the courts and Mississippi’s death investigation system–a relic of the Jim Crow era–failed to deliver justice for its citizens and recounts the horrifying story of the two men who built successful careers on the back of this system. For nearly two decades, medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne performed the vast majority of Mississippi’s autopsies, while his friend Dr. Michael West, a local dentist, pitched himself as a forensic jack-of-all-trades. Together they became the go-to experts for prosecutors and helped put countless Mississippians in prison. But then some of those convictions began to fall apart.

Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington argue that bad forensics, structural racism, and institutional failures are at fault, and raise sobering questions about our criminal justice system’s ability to address them.

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