Photographer Isabelle Armand was born in Paris and relocated to New York City in the 1980s. She was the U.S. editor of French magazine Connaissance des Arts and has been a freelance photographer concentrating on film portraiture and documentaries. Armand’s photographic projects have focused on contemporary artists, the residents of Harlem, and most recently on the story of Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer. Her resulting book, Levon and Kennedy: Mississippi Innocence Project, is published through PowerHouse.
Professor Tucker Carrington is the founding director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project (formerly the Mississippi Innocence Project) and Clinic at the University of Mississippi School of Law. The clinic’s mission is to identify, investigate, and litigate actual claims of innocence by Mississippi prisoners, as well as advocate for systemic criminal justice reform. Prior to his work in Mississippi, Professor Carrington was an E. Barrett Prettyman Fellow at Georgetown Law Center, a trial and supervising attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, and a visiting clinical professor at Georgetown.
In early 1990s rural Mississippi, Levon Brooks was arrested for murdering a three-year-old girl and sentenced to life in prison. A few years later, Kennedy Brewer was arrested for a nearly identical murder and sentenced to death. Both cases were based on what turned out to be faulty bite mark evidence–marks on the bodies that supposedly matched their teeth, but didn’t–and both men spent 15 years or more in jail for crimes they did not commit. But in 2008, with help from the Innocence Project and new DNA testing, the real murderer was found, and the men were exonerated.
Brooks and Brewer were able to return to their families and what remained of their lives outside prison, but their innocence remains a hard question in the criminal justice system: How had the evidence been so wrong? What does that mean about representation, poverty and the system as a whole? And, for these men, what is the reality of returning to the outside world after so long? What does it mean to have been locked up for nothing–possibly forever?
Photographer Isabelle Armand heard of the cases in 2012. Shocked, she reached out to Tucker Carrington at the Mississippi Innocence Project to ask if she could photograph Levon and Kennedy at their homes. Over the span of five years, she spent weeks at a time living with both men and their families, growing close, and photographing them in intimate black-and-white portraits that reveal their bonds, their homes, their town, and the resiliency with which they live.
Her images are at once heartbreaking and full of hope–photographs that might never have been taken of change, of opportunity, but also of reality. They put faces to the faults in our criminal justice system, to the inequality that still exists in America, and to the necessity of questioning our biases. They make us reconsider what we take for granted.
Armand and Carrington discuss these photographs, their time in rural Mississippi, and how we can work to change the conversation around criminal justice reform.
Where are you from?
Isabelle Armand: I’m from Paris, France. I’m an American, and I’ve been in New York since 1982.
Tucker Carrington: I’m from Virginia originally, but I currently live and teach in Oxford, Mississippi.
Isabelle, after reading an article about Levon and Kennedy, you decided to come to Mississippi to photograph them and their families. What about their cases, in particular, resonated with you?
IA: Like Tucker, I was always interested in social issues and criminal justice issues. I come from a caste society in France, so I felt that very early on. The case was really shocking to me. There was simply fabricated evidence, and it sounded very corrupt. Especially in a place like Mississippi, the poorest state in the country and a very rural area, we’re talking about people who have very little exposure in the media and are never seen or heard. I thought about it for a few months, and when it stayed with me that long, I knew I wanted to do something about it. I contacted Tucker who thought it was a good idea, and then I went down there.
“I feel that if you tell the story up close, very intimately, you get to know the people. It’s almost like looking into a mirror. People recognize their own families in them.”
— Isabelle Armand
What message do you hope to share with this project?
IA: I feel that if you tell the story up close, very intimately, you get to know the people. To me, it’s almost like looking into a mirror. People recognize their own families in these people. It’s a way to maybe provoke some reflection. We hear about these cases, but they remain pretty anonymous, so you are outraged and then onto the next thing. If you truly think about it, through one person, one family you get to know, maybe people can imagine that it could happen to them. It can happen to anybody from different walks of life because it’s a big, big system to be caught in. Once you are caught up in it, it is very, very difficult to get out of it.
The book is meant to raise awareness, and I was hoping that through one particular story told very intimately, maybe we’ll have a reaction to it. More conversation about it, more of a realization that it really can happen to anybody. People still have doubts sometimes and think that you get caught in these things because you must have done something, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Tucker, you wrote text to accompany the photos. What kind of story were you hoping to tell?
TC: I thought there might be something more to the story than just the litigation part. I’m not from Mississippi, but I’m fascinated by the place, so I started doing some research on the cases. One thing led to another and there are some really nice people down there in Noxubee, including people in positions of power who were willing to talk.
In the end, it really struck me that the area is so rich in history, much of it unkind and unpleasant particularly for people of color, and yet it seems to have come so far, so fast. You had these trials of two guys for these horrific child killings, but if you had somehow traveled in time from the early part of the 20th century to that trial, you would have thought, “Oh, my goodness, this isn’t eastern Mississippi. This isn’t the Noxubee County I know. These two black guys are actually getting a trial and they have lawyers? This seems civilized…and there are black and white people on the jury.” It was quite remarkable in that way.
“They were wrongfully convicted; they really never got due process; Kennedy was nearly executed. I was fascinated by all that. How that could have happened in this place, at this time?”
— Tucker Carrington
But at the end of the day, what happened to Kennedy and Levon wasn’t much different than what had happened to untold numbers of African American people charged with these kinds of crimes. They were wrongfully convicted and never got due process. Kennedy was nearly executed. I was fascinated. How that could have happened in this place, at this time? That’s what led me to writing the piece that Isabelle excerpted for her book.
That leads me into the next question. How would you explain the failures of the criminal justice system at large, and how did these failures play out specifically in Levon and Kennedy’s case?
TC: What led to their wrongful convictions, in a nutshell, was false forensic evidence. They were both convicted because there was a witness to testify to the fact–claimed fact anyway–that both had bitten their victims, and that their individual teeth had left marks that this witness was able to match to no one but them.
They were, essentially, unchallenged as professional witnesses. We now know that the evidence presented was demonstrably false. The fact that could happen is kind of stunning. That this supposed scientist could be admitted as an expert witness, offer up supposedly foolproof scientific evidence, and have it be so utterly wrong is remarkable.
What we’ve learned is that processes we had previously placed value and faith in are not necessarily processes that we should invest much belief in. For example, forensic science, fingerprints, forensic odontology–the matching of bite marks, which was involved in both of these cases–bullet lead analysis, fingerprint science, eyewitness identification issues. These are all things we need to be skeptical about. It doesn’t mean that some or all of those things are not worth anything, it just means that we had a misplaced faith in them, and I think we can do better.
Isabelle, tell me about the process of shooting these photographs.
IA: The process was pretty natural. Once I was introduced to them by Tucker, we had a common purpose, which was to realize this documentary and make it a book to raise awareness about their cases and about wrongful conviction as well. Also to reveal the kind of environment they deal with and the kind of social economics they come from because it’s really part of the story of how this happened to them. Admittedly, I loved the place and the people. It really impacted me because they became mentors in a way.
You first wonder how it could happen, in what kind of place it could happen, but also how do these people cope with this? Kennedy could have been executed, and Levon could have never come out of prison for his entire life. How do you cope with this, and how does the family cope with this? I found that with both individuals and families, the philosophy of life is just really amazing. It’s based on a religious faith that is very strong and instilled by their parents, their grandparents and everybody in that community.
Nevertheless, they make choices every day that are pretty hard to make, especially when you’re sitting on death row, or when you know you’re going to be in jail for the rest of your life. For me, that’s really what I took away: this incredible way of coping with life. They apply it every day. It’s very, very difficult to do.
Levon Brooks died on January 24th. Basically, he was free for 10 years and sick for four, but he lived his life during these four years, even though he was dealing with treatments and all of that. His way of coping was always the same: a smile on his face. He was super strong like I’ve never seen anybody and very gracious and grateful for what he had and enjoying the moment to the fullest. That’s pretty hard to do when you deal with the circumstances that they deal with. These two families are pretty much okay, but a lot of people aren’t. It’s a very hard life. People are very poor, jobs are menial and transient. It’s very easy to get lost and go down the wrong path, but many of them still have that way of coping, not dwelling on things but moving forward and doing what you need to do.
“It was delightful to meet their families. In part because they were in some ways re-meeting their families for the first time also.”
— Tucker Carrington
What was it like visiting with Levon and Kennedy and their families?
TC: It was delightful to meet their families. In part because they were in some ways re-meeting their families for the first time also. They had been locked up for quite a bit of time. I really enjoyed meeting them all and hanging out with them.
IA: I really enjoyed it too. They are big families, so you are embraced. They’re always gathering. I spent a lot of time with them just living and being in their everyday life. I’ve seen children born that are growing up. It’s like another family for me now.
Tucker, how does it feel when, with the help of your project, a prisoner is finally exonerated?
TC: It’s extraordinary on many levels. One of the things, of course, is that someone’s getting their freedom after 15, 16, 18 years. Watching them experience things that someone like you and I would take for granted like a cell phone or colors, because in prison the color scheme is pretty limited. Just walking down the street is remarkable. Eating food that they haven’t eaten in a long time.
It’s also extraordinary to watch a criminal justice system be put into this position, a system which is still having trouble wrapping its mind around the fact that this happens to people. There are courts which are, for lack of a better word, accommodating and understand that this was a failure of justice. There are also courts and prosecutors who are still in a state of denial and are actively working against you, even if this person is definitively freed.
For both of you, what can we do to help pursue criminal justice reform?
TC: I think we can pay attention and up the level of conversation. In this country, in particular, conversation about crime and punishment and criminal justice issues generally are not that sophisticated. They’re not overly politicized, and they’re full of all sorts of rhetoric. The thing that Innocence Project cases do is get people to pay attention because the narratives are so compelling. In that way, you can have a conversation about the criminal justice system at large, not just guilt or innocence, but also the way we treat people who are charged with crimes and a whole spectrum of issues. But the only way you can do that is to get people to pay attention.
IA: If people really pay attention, besides the obvious criminal justice system, these cases are really interconnected to other problems, to class and policy. And that’s not just in Mississippi. Wrongful conviction is, in my opinion, also part of mass incarceration. There are so many ways these days to incarcerate people from plea deals, to probation, fees to fines. For instance, 64% of the population is below poverty level and the median income, I think, is about $14,000. If you get arrested for small stuff, there are incredible fines to pay, up to $7,000. It’s clear they won’t be able to pay them. Again, it means being conscious that a lot of these issues are a threat to our society, to all of us, and that in the process we are really sacrificing young people and an entire new generation that could be a force for this country.
All images © Isabelle Armand