In early 1995, Kennedy Brewer was sentenced to die by lethal injection after having been convicted of raping and manually strangling his girlfriend’s three year-old daughter and dumping her body in a creek. The evidence against Brewer seemed overwhelming. He admitted that he was home alone with the victim – three-year old Christine Jackson – in the hours immediately preceding her disappearance, but he had always claimed that he had been asleep when she was abducted. He offered no explanation about how or when someone could have gained entry into the house, much less access to the single, habitable room where he claimed they had been sleeping.
What happened next made his story even harder to believe.
When police found Christine’s body floating in a creek a few hundred yards from Brewer’s home, she was split from rectum to vagina, the result of a violent sexual assault. After gathering blood samples, cheek swabs, and dental molds from Brewer, as well as several other male suspects who had been around the house just prior to her disappearance, the State brought in their best forensic scientists to examine the remains. They conducted an autopsy, photographed the multitude of wounds that peppered the tiny body, and employed cutting edge technologies, such as the use of a specially calibrated spectrometer that allowed them to identify subcutaneous wound patterns invisible to the naked eye.
Every bit of evidence they found pointed directly to Brewer, including what the experts had concluded were nineteen separate bite marks, all of which were a direct match to Brewer’s teeth.
As Brewer lay in his bunk in the dark hell Parchman Penitentiary’s Death Row, across the prison grounds in a separate unit another inmate, Levon Brooks, who was serving a life sentence, was in his bunk putting the finishing touches on his latest hand-crafted greeting card. Brooks loved to draw, and he had built a small, but lucrative cottage industry for himself by selling his birthday and anniversary cards to guards for a few dollars, and even to fellow inmates for a portion of their snacks and drinks from the prison canteen. He also drew cards for his mother and had managed to send her one per week since he beginning his life sentence at Parchman two years earlier.
Like Brewer, Levon Brooks was also from Noxubee County, and while they weren’t necessarily friends, like most people in the rural Mississippi community where they grew up, they knew one other. In fact, Brooks had dated Brewer’s sister for a while a few years before. But beyond that the two didn’t have much in common – at least not until Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death.
Eighteen months before Brewer was sentenced, another little girl, Courtney Smith, was found raped and murdered in Noxubee County. Like Brewer, Levon Brooks had a connection to the victim’s family, and, like Brewer, became the prime suspect in the police investigation of the crime. Courtney Smith had also been three years old when she was abducted. Like Christine Jackson, Courtney’s body was found shortly after her abduction. She, too, had been sexually assaulted, manually strangled and dumped into a small body of water.
As the local authorities conducted their investigation into Smith’s murder, they brought in the same experts to examine Courtney’s body. As they had in the Brewer case, the experts discovered a wealth of evidence against Brooks that proved beyond any reasonable doubt that he had bitten Courtney Smith multiple times. The State charged Brooks with capital murder. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were innocent.
In the spring of 2008, after years of legal efforts by their lawyers, Brooks and Brewer were exonerated and released from prison. Both were extraordinary fortunate: the DNA evidence in Brooks’ case had, over the years, become too degraded to test; the material in Brewer’s case went missing for years. Without the intervention of their lawyers and the renown DNA analyst who became involved, both men would have died in prison – Brooks, presumably, of natural causes, and Brewer by lethal injection.
Though the trials took place in the early 1990’s, viewers will be able to access not only the trial itself – through in-depth interviews with Brooks and Brewer, but also follow their ordeal in prison and be with them in the courtroom at the moment of their exoneration. In addition, the film documents their first year as free men — the death of Brooks’ mother, Brewer’s wedding, and other more pedestrian but deeply affecting personal experiences. Also addressed through a series of interviews with the key players in the legal drama are the causes of and reactions to this failure of justice. Interview subjects include law enforcement figures who investigated the crime scenes, the prosecutor in both cases, as well as the Mississippi Attorney General and the DNA analyst whose work was the catalyst for both men’s freedom. The narrative is driven by interviews with John Grisham, author of The Innocent Man and himself an advocate for improvements in the criminal justice system, as well as Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, co-founders of the Innocence Project.