Sherwood Brown has been exonerated of the charges that sent him to death row in Mississippi in 1995 for a triple murder he did not commit. On August 24, 2021, DeSoto County Circuit Court Judge Jimmy McClure granted a prosecution motion to dismiss charges against Brown (pictured after his release), who was released later that day after having spent 26 years on the state’s death row or facing the prospects of a capital retrial.
“We are extremely thankful to see Sherwood walk out of prison a free man,” said John R. Lane, a principal at the law firm, Fish & Richardson, which represented Brown pro bono. “After all of this time, we never lost hope, and are gratified justice has finally been served.” Brown also was represented pro bono by co-counsel from the Mississippi Innocence Project and the law firm 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 convictions and death sentence rested in substantial part on false expert forensic testimony, as well as and the perjured testimony of an jailhouse informant who was a previously convicted felon facing additional, serious charges for car theft, and who claimed that Brown had confessed to the murders. Prosecutors had argued that blood that was found on the sole of one of Brown’s shoes came from the victims and two forensic bitemark analysts falsely claimed that a cut on Brown’s wrist was a bitemark that matched the girl’s bite pattern.
DNA evidence later showed that bloody footprints in and around the murder scene contained only female DNA and the blood spot on Brown’s shoe contained only male DNA. DNA testing on a swab of Boyd’s saliva did not contain Brown’s DNA, refuting the claim that she had bitten Brown. DNA tests on the sexual assault kit collected during the autopsy found no DNA from Brown but showed that Evangelista Boyd’s pubic hair and her bra contained DNA from unidentified males. A forensic scientist from the Mississippi Crime Laboratory found that none of the hair evidence recovered from the clothing and bodies of the victims had any microscopic characteristics similar to Brown’s hair and a crime lab fingerprint analyst found 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 from a wrongful capital conviction and death sentence. According to data maintained by the Death Penalty Information Center, 186 men and women who had been sentenced to death pursuant to wrongful convictions have now been exonerated, seven in Mississippi. Brown is the third former Mississippi death-row prisoner exonerated in the past year. Curtis Flowers was exonerated on September 4, 2020, and Eddie Lee Howard was exonerated January 8, 2021
Junk science — and in particular false bitemark testimony — has contributed to numerous death-row exonerations. Dr. Michael West, a notorious prosecution expert witness whose false bitemark testimony has contributed to at least five wrongful murder convictions, including three wrongful death sentences, provided a letter to the prosecution that “[t]he wound on the left wrist of Sherwood Brown is a human bitemark. It is a bitemark of great severity and is consistant [sic] with the time of the attack. The bitemark pattern is highly consistant [sic] with the dentition of Evanlie [sic] Boyd.”
West ultimately did not testify in Brown’s case because he had a scheduling conflict — he was providing false forensic testimony against another Mississippi death-row exoneree, Kennedy Brewer. However, Dr. Harry Mincer testified “that the [upper] teeth of Evangela Boyd highly probably had made the bitemark on … the left wrist of Sherwood Brown.”
Bitemark-identification claims such as those made by West were the subject of blistering criticism by the National Academies of Science in their landmark 2009 report, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward. In 2011, West subsequently admitted in a deposition in the case of death-row exoneree Eddie Lee Howard that he “no longer believe[s] in bite-mark analysis. I don’t think it should be used in court. I think you should use DNA. Throw bite marks out.”
In 2012, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted Brown’s motion for DNA testing, leading to the evidence that debunked the blood and bitemark cornerstones of the prosecution’s case. In their motion for a new trial, Brown’s lawyers argued that “the two pieces of physical evidence that the state alleged at the 1995 trial, linked petitioner to the crime scene — and upon which the state relied to gain a conviction and sentence in this matter — do not in fact link the petitioner to the crime scene, and are not what the state purported them to be.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court overturned Brown’s conviction and death sentence in October 2017. Despite the exculpatory DNA evidence, Brown remained in custody as prosecutors tried to build another case against him. Over the course of three years, four more laboratories tested the DNA evidence and came back with the same results while Brown remained in county prison facing possible capital retrial. “Every time, there was nothing incriminating Sherwood,” Lane said of the state’s actions. “The state was trying to find something to incriminate Sherwood, but every time they did, it kind of stumped them deeper.”
Finally, after the years of extra DNA testing, the prosecution indicated that it had no intent to reprosecute Brown and moved to dismiss the charges against him.