May 10, 2019

This book is aptly subtitled “A true story of injustice in the American south.”  Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington take the reader to the backwaters of Mississippi and the tale of the local medical examiner who somehow conducted 3 to 4 times as many autopsies per year as any pathologist should (or even could) and his compatriot dentist who became a self-declared expert on identifying marks on skin as coming from human dentition – bite marks.  Along the way, evidence was made up from whole cloth, people were convicted based on non-validated claims and methodologies, and at least two actually innocent men were jailed, one on death row.

But the story of the ‘king’ and the dentist is actually much more.  Balko, who writes for the Washington Post, ‘gets’ the limitations of forensic science and forensic discipline evidence; and his co-author Tucker Carrington, of the Mississippi Innocence Project, ‘gets’ Mississippi’s court system, legislature, social climate, politics and intolerance.  So the tale of this flawed forensic dynamic duo is inextricably interwoven with the role of race in the criminal justice system; the dichotomy of hard science that later gets applied in courts versus police investigative efforts that become labeled ‘science;’ the tolerance of under-sourced lawyers responsible for defending those without funds; and a criminal law apparatus that prioritizes convictions over integrity – the integrity of the process, integrity of its practitioners.

But don’t think this is a screed.  This is a compelling narrative, as readable and entrancing as many of the great books of legal nonfiction such as SIMPLE JUSTICE, COMMON GROUND, or GIDEON’S TRUMPET.  it is also a deeply personal story of two wrongfully-convicted men.

If your interest is in forensic evidence, read this book; if it is in criminal justice, and in particular the interfaces of race and justice and expertise and justice, read this book; and if you simply want to read an oft-ignored but compelling aspect of American history, read this book.