It seems like the work of Millersville University professor Dr. John Wallace can be found almost anywhere. Most recently, you can see some of Wallace’s work as an entomologist in the Netflix original series “The Innocence Files.” For the uninitiated, Wallace studies insects. So how does a scientist who studies insects end up on a syndicated Netflix series?
The series showcases the work of The Innocence Project, a U.S.-based non-profit that works to overturn wrongful convictions. Wallace’s skills proved to be exactly what prosecutors in Mississippi needed for their case to help free a man falsely accused of murder from death row. The show also features the cases of eight other wrongfully convicted people. Wallace’s work on the Kennedy Brewer case was key to the release of a wrongly imprisoned man. “I never expected my work as an entomologist to lead to releasing an innocent man from death row,” says Wallace. “What I do with regards to how insects and other organisms play a role in criminal or civil cases has always been done with the intention of sharing how entomology can be applied to everyday life and in these cases, death.”
Kennedy Brewer’s case was a complicated one. He was the primary suspect in the Brooksville, Mississippi case of the kidnapping, rape and murder of a 3-year–old child who was found dead in a nearby creek with bite marks on her body several days after her disappearance in 1992. DNA-testing was not commonplace at the time, which meant the evidence that could have almost immediately proven Brewer innocent was not examined.
Brewer spent more than 15 years on death row for the crime – a crime he didn’t commit.
“A forensic entomology colleague who knew about my crayfish work was contacted first by The Innocence Project. He referred them to me based on my work conducted at MU,” said Wallace, explaining how he was invited to take part in the case. “In 1999 and 2000, my thesis student, Carrie Burkholder, class of 2000, and I did a crayfish survey for the county that received national acclaim. It was also in a publication which later was instrumental to the modification of bait shop laws by the Fish & Boat Commission. This research is what led to the work I did on the Kennedy Brewer case.”
The nitty gritty of Wallace’s 2006 work involved examining bite marks found on the girl’s body – originally thought to be human – but his research disproved this hypothesis: the bite marks most likely came from crawfish in the stream where she was found. And the way he talked about testing his hypothesis was simply following the rules of hypothesis testing in science: Wallace traveled to Mississippi with his two sons to pay a visit to the stream where the child’s body was recovered, trapped crayfish, brought them back to Pennsylvania, dumped them in a tank, and inserted a dead pig and recorded how often the pig was bitten. Taking video and measuring bitemarks caused by the crayfish, he statistically compared these marks to bites on the victim from autopsy photos and to the maximum bite or gap width of the crayfish using a technique that MU students use in several biology classes.
In the end, the bites on the victim and on the pig as well as the maximum bite width of the crayfish were statistically the same. In court, they would say that they were consistent with those caused by crayfish. The work was published in the journal of “Forensic Science International.”
Early evidence previously used in Brewer’s trial indicated the bites were a match and consistent with Brewer’s tooth configuration. But if you want to find out what else happened as the case developed, you’ll just have to watch season 1 episodes 1 and 2. There’s much more to the story.
Wallace was also quick to praise the work of his colleagues at Millersville University who’ve also had the honor of having their work featured in the media. “MU has been well-represented on national television and in film. Examples such as Stacey Irwin’s recent film at the International Film Festival, Victor Capecce’s work on the first Ghostbusters film, Changfu Chang’s documentary work on various topics on Chinese lives, to name a few,” he says. “We have some incredibly talented folks who work and teach at Millersville University and it’s an honor to work alongside them. But being on television or the big screen is just a small part of all the incredible research and scholarly activity that Millersville faculty showcase to the world.”