186. innocent person exonerated in the USA: Sherwood Brown freed after 26 years on death row
Sherwood Brown was exonerated by the prosecution, which in 1995 put him on death row in Mississippi for a triple murder he did not committed, put him on Mississippi’s death row. On Aug. 24, 2021, DeSoto County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy McClure granted a motion by prosecutors to dismiss charges against Brown (pictured after his release), who was released later that day after spending 26 years on the state’s death row or face the prospect of retrial.
“We are very grateful that Sherwood is leaving prison a free man,” said John R. Lane, principal of Fish & Richardson, the law firm that represented Brown pro bono. “After all this time, we have never lost hope and are pleased that justice has finally been served. Brown was also represented pro bono by co-counsel from the Mississippi Innocence Project and the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
Brown was sentenced to death for the murder of 13-year-old Evangela Boyd and received two life sentences for the murders of her mother and grandmother. His conviction and death sentence were based in significant part on false forensic expert testimony, as well as sworn testimony from a jailhouse informant, who was a previously convicted felon facing additional felony carjacking charges, and who claimed Brown had confessed to the murders. Prosecutors had claimed that blood found on the sole of one of Brown’s shoes came from the victims, and two forensic bite mark analysts had falsely claimed that a cut on Brown’s wrist was a bite mark that matched the girl’s bite pattern.
DNA evidence later showed that bloody footprints at and around the crime scene contained only female DNA, and the bloodstain on Brown’s shoe contained only male DNA. DNA tests on a swab of Boyd’s saliva did not contain Brown’s DNA, disproving the claim that she bit Brown. DNA tests on the sexual assault kit recovered at autopsy did not reveal any DNA from Brown, but showed that Evangelista Boyd’s pubic hair and her bra contained DNA from unidentified males. A Mississippi Crime Laboratory forensic pathologist determined that none of the hair recovered from the victims’ clothing and bodies had microscopic features resembling Brown’s hair, and a crime lab fingerprint analyst determined that none of the fingerprints found at the scene belonged to Brown.
Brown is the 100th African American in the U.S. since 1973 to be exonerated of a wrongful death conviction. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 186 men and women who were sentenced to death as a result of wrongful convictions have now been exonerated, seven of them in Mississippi. Brown is the third former Mississippi death row inmate exonerated in the past year. Curtis Flowers was exonerated Sept. 4, 2020, and Eddie Lee Howard was exonerated Jan. 8, 2021.
Junk science – and especially false testimony about bite marks – has contributed to numerous death row exonerations. Dr. Michael West, a notorious prosecution expert whose false bite mark testimony has contributed to at least five wrongful murder convictions, including three wrongful death sentences, has written to prosecutors that “the wound on Sherwood Brown’s left wrist is a human bite mark. It is a bite mark of great severity consistent with the time of the attack. The pattern of the bite mark is highly consistent with the dentition of Evanlie [sic] Boyd.”
West ultimately did not testify in Brown’s case because he had a scheduling conflict – he gave false forensic testimony against another Mississippi inmate sentenced to death, Kennedy Brewer. However, Dr. Harry Mincer testified “that the [upper] teeth of Evangela Boyd most likely left the bite mark on … the left wrist of Sherwood Brown.”
Bite mark identification claims like West’s were supported by the National Academies of Science in its landmark 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. In 2011, West admitted in an affidavit in the case of death row inmate Eddie Lee Howard that he no longer believed in bite mark analysis. I don’t think it should be used in court. I think DNA should be used. Throw out the bite wounds.”
In 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Brown’s request for DNA testing, leading to evidence that invalidated the blood and bite marks as the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. In their motion for a new trial, Brown’s attorneys argued that “the two pieces of physical evidence that the State claimed in the 1995 trial linked Petitioner to the crime scene – and that the State relied on to obtain a conviction and sentence in this matter – do not, in fact, link Petitioner to the crime scene and are not what the State claimed they were.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Brown’s conviction and death sentence in October 2017. Despite the exculpatory DNA evidence, Brown remained in custody while prosecutors tried to build another case against him. Over the course of three years, four more labs examined the DNA evidence and came up with the same results, while Brown remained in county jail facing a possible retrial. “Each time, there was nothing to incriminate Sherwood,” Lane said of the state’s approach. “The state tried to find something to incriminate Sherwood, but every time they did, they kind of stumbled deeper.
Eventually, after years of additional DNA testing, the prosecution indicated it had no intention of prosecuting Brown again and filed a motion to drop the charges against him.