Imagine being wrongly convicted and jailed for abducting, raping and murdering a 3-year-old girl.
That's apparently exactly what happened to two African-American men — separately — in one rural Mississippi county, and now their livid lawyers are calling for criminal charges to be brought against a controversial "bite mark" expert whose testimony helped convict the two men.
A separate investigation by the state attorney general's office led to the arrest last week of a third man who reportedly confessed in telling detail to killing both toddlers after DNA tied him to one of the murders. He told authorities that he never bit either victim, according to lawyers who reviewed the taped confession.
The two little girls, who were abducted 20 months apart from homes separated by a few miles, were murdered and violated in the same way. Both were left in watery graves. Kennedy Brewer was convicted in the May 1992 murder of Christine Jackson.
In 1990, 3-year-old Courtney Smith had been abducted, raped and murdered. Levon Brooks spent 18 years in jail after being convicted in that killing.
In each case, forensic odontologist Dr. Michael West testified that abrasions on the victims' bodies were bite marks — and told two juries that he conclusively matched the marks to, respectively, Brewer's and Brooks' dental records.
Capital murder charges against Brewer were dismissed by a Mississippi judge last Friday, and Brooks' conviction has been vacated. He was released on bond, pending a dismissal hearing in March.
Lawyers for the wrongly convicted men are infuriated. They are calling for the criminal prosecution of West, the forensic dentist.
West "deliberately fabricated evidence and conclusions which were not supported by the evidence, the data or the rules of science but … because they were consistent with the prosecutor's theory,'' said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that examines questionable convictions and has won the exoneration of more than 200 inmates.
"If you fabricate evidence in a capital murder case, where you know that if the person's convicted they are going to be executed — as far as I'm concerned that's the crime of attempted murder.''
"He's a criminal," Neufeld said of West.
The two cases were investigated by the same Noxubee County, Mississippi detective and prosecuted by the same attorney, and the same medical examiner and forensic dentist appeared in each case.
This is the first time that Neufeld or his colleagues at the Innocence Project have ever called for the criminal prosecution of a scientist, Neufeld said.
"These are not cases of sloppy forensic science,'' Neufeld said on Monday. "This is intentional misconduct. It's fabricated evidence to send people to death row.''
West did not respond to repeated inquiries Monday, but he told Mississippi's Clarion Ledger newspaper — which first reported the story — that he stands by his testimony in both cases.
He had testified that Brewer bit Jackson 19 times, using only his upper two teeth — a conclusion that fellow forensic dentists told ABC News is extremely tenuous. West identified the wounds as human bite marks, and said they matched Brewer, according to court documents and scientists who reviewed the case.