Investigative journalist Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington, Director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi, have put together a heart-rending account of the institutional racism embedded in the intersection of law and science in Mississippi. The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist of the title are Dr. Stephen Hayne and Dr. Michael West, who together held sway over the murder investigation and prosecution for decades. Leaning heavily on an antiquated system of county coroners, complicit officials who fought hard to maintain the Jim Crow status quo and a gloss of CSI-style razzle-dazzle and jargon, Haynes literally cornered the market on autopsies in the state and brought along his friend West, who professed expertise in a number of shaky forensic techniques.
The two became the favored experts for prosecutors. not least for their creativity and willingness to shape the “evidence” to the state’s needs. Judges accepted the “science.” State officials refused to staff or fund a modern medical examiner’s office. Haynes and West grew rich and famous. And innocent people, mostly African-American, went to jail. While two of the wrongly convicted men detailed in the book were exonerated when Haynes and West eventually fell from grace, many others remain imprisoned with no systematic review of this deep injustice likely. This is not a story with a happy ending, but one that will leave you shaking your head and whispering Mississippi goddam.