Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks combined spent more than 30 years behind bars for crimes they did not commit.
Both men were exonerated through the Innocence Project, a public policy organization dedicated to reforming the criminal justice system and clearing the names of those falsely convicted. Brewer, who was on death row, and Brooks, who was serving a life sentence, were the 214th and 215th prisoners whose wrongful convictions were overturned through the project.
This week the Newseum hosted the national premiere of Mississippi Innocence, a documentary that outlines the faulty forensic evidence, inaccurate testimony, strong-willed litigators, and small-town law enforcement officials that played significant roles in these two men being falsely convicted. Both were freed after DNA evidence led to the capture of the actual perpetrator.
Author and attorney John Grisham, part of a panel that discussed the film, told a similar tale in his first non-fiction book, 2006's The Innocent Man, about another wrongfully convicted death row inmate from a small southern town.
He said it is easy for prosecutors to sway jurors to convict defendants in small, rural towns because "the people want to believe the authorities," even when they offer inaccurate testimony or present tainted evidence.
Grisham and the other panelists placed much of the broken system's blame on the general public's lack of understanding of forensic science and tendency to believe any type of authority figure, but they also faulted overly aggressive prosecutors.
Grisham particularly pointed out that the prosecutor who convicted both men said he did the best job that he could with the facts that he had. "That's bulls---," Grisham said to applause and laughs.
Panelist Angela Davis, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, said it is the responsibility of the prosecutors to not continue proceedings if evidence is based on "junk science."
She also said that the public and the media should do more to call attention to capitol punishment cases.
The panelists also urged more repercussions when an authority figure gives inaccurate testimony or is found to be unaccredited. The film pointed out that Mississippi has not conducted a systematic review of cases involving the doctors who testified against Brewer and Brooks, including the state pathologist who conducted 80 to 90 percent of criminal autopsies in Mississippi over a 20-year period despite not being properly board-certified.