February 10, 2012 10:19:00 PM
MACON -- The girls lived only three miles apart. They were only three years old. Both were snatched from their homes in the middle of the night, raped and strangled.
Courtney Smith's body was found in a Noxubee County pond. Christine Jackson's body was found in a Noxubee County creek. Two men were sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and the tiny community of Brooksville -- population 1,182 -- tried to heal.
There was only one problem: Levon Brooks, serving a life sentence for Smith's September 1990 murder, and Kennedy Brewer, sitting on death row for Jackson's May 1992 murder, were both innocent.
Thursday, Justin Albert Johnson, 55, pleaded guilty to raping and murdering the toddlers and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Johnson confessed to the crimes in 2008, just a few months before DNA evidence cleared Brooks and Brewer.
Just as DNA evidence cleared Brooks and Brewer, semen found on Jackson's body led to Johnson's conviction, according to The Innocence Project, a group of lawyers who helped persuade state Attorney General Jim Hood to charge him on two counts of capital murder.
Wednesday, Johnson was transported from the East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Jackson, where he was serving time for drug convictions in Oktibbeha County.
According to Noxubee County Chief Deputy Tommy Roby, Johnson is currently being held at the Noxubee County Jail in Macon until his paperwork can be completed and he can be transported to the penitentiary.
District Attorney Forrest Allgood said Friday night that he wanted to seek the death penalty for Johnson, but the families of both victims sent letters and asked him not to do so.
"My personal opinion is that anybody that rapes and kills a small child deserves the death penalty," Allgood said. "... Quite frankly, I would have preferred to have tried him and sought the death penalty."
Courtney Smith was the daughter of Brooks' ex-girlfriend at the time of her death. Christine Jackson was the daughter of Brewer's live-in girlfriend.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.
1. Coach Marsh will be remembered COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY