Isabelle Armand book release

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04.06.18 10:34 PM ET

Both Men Were Innocent But They Were From Mississippi

Photographer Isabelle Armand spent five years documenting the lives of two black men unfairly convicted of murder. Her images weld a horrible past to a painful present.

The bodies of Christina Jackson and Courtney Smith were discovered in the waters around Noxubee County, Mississippi, in 1990 and 1992. It appeared that both three-year-olds had not only been kidnapped and murdered but also sexually assaulted while in captivity. The crimes were so horrific that life imprisonment and even execution could sound like just punishments. Indeed, those were the sentences passed down on Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, who were independently found guilty of each girl’s death. There was only one problem: Both men were innocent.

French photographer Isabelle Armand’s forthcoming book, Levon and Kennedy: Mississippi Innocence Project, is ostensibly the story of Brooks and Brewer and their experiences with the U.S. criminal justice system. Each man served over a dozen years in prison before the Innocence Project was able to exonerate them by finding the real perpetrator who had committed both crimes.

It’s a dramatic story of justice and injustice, but Armand’s book examines much more. Her black-and-white photographs, taken over the last five years, focus on Brooks’ and Brewer’s lives since their release in 2008, their families, and, especially, their homes. Both men were born, raised, and still live in Noxubee County. The region has a history of oppressing African Americans, from slavery to vigilante white supremacist violence to segregation. That grim past is captured in the plantation buildings that still stand in Noxubee and, as Armand’s photos seem to argue, in the trials of Brooks and Brewer.

I recently spoke with Armand about the relationship Brooks and Brewer have to their home in rural Mississippi, how the United States’ ugly history of slavery, segregation, and bigotry continues to inform its present tragedies, and how anti-racist movements still have far to go.

Levon and Kennedy is ostensibly about the contemporary criminal justice system in the United States, but your photographs connect this story to the nation’s history of racism. Can you describe how you feel the past informs the present in your book?

Past and present seem fused together in this rural area. It’s in the empty fields, in the landscapes, which feel unchanged since deforestation made way for agriculture. The plantations are still the same big farms today, whether they rent out their land, became catfish farms, or spray pesticides with drones on their crops. In between large holdings, there are small clusters of trailers and small houses. Families in those small communities have been there for generations and most are connected to a big farm. Some friends still work for the same farm owners, whose land their ancestors and their parents were born and worked on. Unfortunately, communities are poor and it also hardly looks any different from the images we have from the past, even though circumstances greatly changed with the civil rights movement. Railroad tracks are omnipresent, many disused, some with the occasional freight train passing through. They feel like specters of the past…  Broken down stations are in each village, in downtown areas falling apart, which are African-American neighborhoods. Often, there is a Confederate statue at the crossroad. It’s hard to escape history there.

There’s been a recent push to topple Confederate statues as part of the broader Black Lives Matter movement. Did you notice that either of these subjects had an impact on the folks you were documenting?

Many young people, and probably others there, are interested in the movement. But in rural communities of a few hundred people like those, away from any action, their lives remain unaffected. And when folks struggle to put $3 of gas in their car on any given day, they can’t worry about much else.

One of the most shocking aspects of your photographs is Levon’s and Kennedy’s proximity to the old establishments of slavery. There is, for example, a photo of Levon’s grandson running through the fields of the nearby plantation where Levon was born. Is that proximity something you expected to find when you started this project in 2013?

With Mississippi’s tragic past and its current politics, I did expect this proximity to be visible but also felt culturally. I’ll quote author Jemar Tisby about Mississippi and how one is struck by “the immediacy of the past. Nothing stands between you and the stories you hear about slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement. This history is in the ground you walk on and the people you live among.” The proximity you mention is closer than one would think. The plantation where Levon was born is still owned by the same family, which founded it generations ago. It was shocking to hear the 60-year-old owner, who grew up with Levon, talk about how “his daddy paid for the medical expenses of his farm hands” and who was proud that “they had about 100 blacks living on the farm at the time.” He showed me ledgers from 1964, listing how much cotton employees picked each day at harvest. I remember that Richard Brooks, Levon’s dad, made $2.36 on one particular day. But Macon is 77 percent black and Brooksville 83 percent, and you deeply feel the strength and richness of this culture…  You definitely feel those cultural roots, which managed to flourish out of oppression.

Another surprising element in your book is both Levon’s and Kennedy’s testaments to loving Noxubee County, a region which supported everything from slavery to vigilante white supremacist violence to segregation to the false imprisonment of both men. What did you make of their love for a place that has so wronged them and those like them?

Levon and Kennedy come from very tight-knit communities and families. They were shielded that way, at least as children. Levon described how they all looked out for each other, had each other’s keys, and didn’t let anyone go hungry. He was surrounded by siblings and friends at the plantation. He’d run across that same field Jeremy runs through in the photograph you mentioned and ride bareback with his father to gather the cattle. They picked cotton all together during the season and stuck stones in their bags to make them heavier at weighing time. He had good memories. A few miles away and some years later, Kennedy ran around in similar fields with his 14 siblings in a very strong family. They both recall the freedom of their childhood in nature with fondness and love the countryside to this day—fishing, hunting, growing vegetables, the peace and quiet. During their incarceration, they had that same strong support system… Now, their parents recall those times differently. It was very hard work and you were still poor. There was no personal freedom with segregation, and there were dangers. But there is still that love for their birthplace for many there, who chose to remain generation after generation. Levon, Kennedy, their families, and neighbors are very aware of the issues they face, the restraints they deal with. But they choose to ignore what will never change, in their opinion. They moved on a long time ago and go about living their full lives and, like many others there, surviving as best they can.

A different but connected story that your photos tell is of economic degradation. You capture abandoned train cars, closed businesses, and entire neighborhoods seemingly on the cusp of death. How does the tale of what was once “a lively town” play into the narrative of Levon and Kennedy?

Growing up, Levon and his parents would shop in those small towns for the things the farm didn’t provide. Same for Kennedy, who went to school and to his candy store in those neighborhoods you see, now completely collapsed. People may have been poor farm hands then, but they were part of a local economy. I am not certain of all the factors which contributed to the death of those towns. One factor is that farming got mechanized and people were out of jobs and without skills for other industries there. Older people will all tell you about the improvements the civil rights movement brought on, its new freedom and opportunities. They could leave the farms, buy a little land, and build a home. I feel that, for those who stayed in those small rural places, better education and opportunities were scarce. They were poor to start with and remained so. It seems that progress was short lived and they were left behind. Poverty took on a new meaning; unemployment, drugs, gun violence came into play. It broke up communities and many families, it changed the social order. Instead of progress and hope, decay, illness, substance abuse, and dire poverty took over. It’s ironic that Macon or Brooksville would be better places, in some ways, in the late ’60s than they currently are. Poverty is now worse than it was in the ’70s. It’s a regression observed throughout the country. It renders those isolated communities vulnerable to being abused by the legal system in numerous ways. Poverty was a factor in Levon’s and Kennedy’s cases, and is often one today in terms of wrongful conviction and mass incarceration.

Levon and Kennedy also includes a two-part essay by Tucker Carrington, director of the George C. Cochran Innocence Project. Tucked away in the footnotes is a paraphrased argument from Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority in Herrera v. Collins: “The execution of an innocent person, fairly tried, would not offend any fundamental principle of justice.” What does this horrifying sentiment say about the U.S. justice system?

The U.S. is the only Western country that still has the death penalty. It’s unfathomable. The risk of executing just one innocent person should be enough to abolish it. Carrington mentions that this statement was made prior to the “DNA revolution,” which did call into question the ability of the system to “fairly try” defendants. Texas is now reviewing criminal cases and death row cases with DNA testing. Wyoming just passed the Factual Innocence Law to help the wrongfully convicted. That gives hope. But Tucker also points out that the system still values finality sometimes more than innocence, even in the face of evidence. That is terrifying because it leaves little chance for reform. Prosecutors have immunity, and the pathologist and the so-called dental expert in Levon and Kennedy’s cases also have immunity. They lied under oath, even fabricated evidence, and testified at numerous trials. But they will not suffer any repercussion, as per a recent court ruling in a couple of civil cases against them. With those decisions, the system protects itself and the status quo. It doesn’t try to correct itself, doesn’t sanction corrupt elements, and doesn’t question the ultimate value of that finality. The prosecutor was in office since the ’90s and only lost reelection in 2015. He and his two expert forensic witnesses left many victims in their wake: Levon and Kennedy, their loved ones—Christina Jackson, the second little girl who was murdered, would be alive today had police and prosecution done their job ethically. Some of their victims may still be unknown and incarcerated. Innocents may have died in prison under their type of justice.

There’s been intense criticism of the contemporary justice system as merely a re-imagining of the former institutions of white supremacy. Do you think that’s supported by the cases of Levon and Kennedy?

There is little question that institutional racism is built into the criminal justice system. Levon and Kennedy cases are a tragic example of the injustice it results in.