In a significant sign that district attorney elections can be opportunities for prosecutorial accountability, rather than competitions for the most punitive candidate, voters in Mississippi’s 16th Judicial District this week elected a reform candidate and defeated a notorious twenty-six year incumbent with a record of misconduct, reversed convictions, and the use, and subsequent defense of shoddy and discredited testimony.
Forrest Allgood has been the District Attorney in the so-called “Golden Triangle” region of eastern central Mississippi since 1989, and is one of the most aggressive “tough on crime” prosecutors in the country. Due to the thorough reporting of Radley Balko, he is best known for his repeated use of testimony by discredited medical examiner Steve Hayne, and his associate, the equally discredited “bite-mark expert” Michael West, who between them have contributed to hundreds of suspect convictions in the last two decades.
Among Allgood’s exploits are:
- obtaining the conviction a 13 year old boy for murder that was later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court for the use of unscientific evidence given by Hayne;
- obtaining the conviction of an 18 year old mentally impaired woman for murdering her infant son, a case also later reversed for shoddy medical testimony;
- Using West’s “bite-mark” testimony to convict Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks and send them to death row for the murder of two young girls they did not commit; both were later exonerated by DNA evidence.
Allgood has doggedly defended these convictions well after the testimony used was proven to be bogus, causing his victims to remain imprisoned for years after their prosecutions had all-but fallen apart.
The man who defeated Allgood, Scott Colom, is a thirty-two year old African-American Democrat who ran on a promise to seek alternatives to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders. As he told the The Dispatch,
[Voters] understood that sending non-violent offenders to jail for a long period of time is not productive for society and counter-productive for the individual. I had the courage to push that message. Usually, a district attorney doesn’t run on that. Usually, a district attorney runs on ‘tough on crime’ like everybody else. But I had the courage to say what I thought was the truth and people responded to the truth as they often do.
While it of course remains to be seen how Colom comports himself once in office, it is a remarkable change of course for a district that has returned a publicly admonished prosecutor to office for nearly three decades, despite ample evidence of his overreaching in multiple cases.
With the upcoming election in Caddo Parrish, Louisiana, where another, now nationally notorious prosecutor, Dale Cox, has dropped out of the race for DA, the election this week in Mississippi offers an initial sign that the increased attention brought to bear on the behavior of prosecutors can lead to at least once form of accountability: getting voted out of a job.