Levon Brooks died earlier this week. Brooks and Kennedy Brewer were convicted of the separate rapes and murders of two little girls in the early 1990s in Noxubee County, Miss. They were convicted primarily because of the testimony of forensic witnesses Steven Hayne and Michael West. Hayne found marks on the bodies that he thought were human bite marks. West then confirmed and matched the marks first to Brooks and then to Brewer. These are the two wrongful convictions that drive my forthcoming book, which I co-wrote with Tucker Carrington, director of the George C. Cochran Mississippi Innocence Project. So I’ve come to learn quite a bit about Brooks’s life and what a remarkable man he was.

Brooks was convicted just as he was settling into a new job that he loved, at a local club where he served as bouncer, cook, greeter, parking attendant and whatever else needed doing. He had also just learned that he was about to have a daughter. He served 18 years. He told me a couple years ago that he was determined not to let prison change the man he saw himself to be. He would survive, but with cunning and charm, not with violence. Levon got a job as a cook at Parchman Penitentiary, which he leveraged to win favor with his fellow inmates. He used his flare for art to draw greeting cards, then sold them to prison staff to send to their relatives. He then used all of that favor he’d earned to help other inmates he could tell were struggling. He was a decent man.

Brooks was finally exonerated in 2008. Years later, he was given a $50,000 per year stipend for his wrongful incarceration. He gave much of it away, and remained living with his fiancee (later to become his wife) in their modest home in rural Noxubee County. His one splurge: He and his wife opened a tiny little restaurant behind their house. On weekends, they’d invite the neighborhood to watch football during the day. At night, everyone danced. A couple years ago, he and Dinah got married there.

Brooks was strong — he had to be. But he was also empathetic. He and Brewer were convicted of separate crimes that were committed by another man. They were finally exonerated when that man was identified through DNA testing, and who then confessed to both crimes. When the real killer was arraigned, Brooks and Brewer went to the hearing. Brewer, quite understandably, had planned to ask that the state seek the death penalty. Brooks talked Brewer out of that. They didn’t know who this man was. They knew nothing about why he did what he did. (It turns out he may have had undiagnosed schizophrenia.) Brooks knew the little girl he was accused of killing. He had dated her mother. This man was responsible not only for raping and killer that little girl but also for Brooks’s subsequent incarceration. Yet if the system could make a mistake with him, it could make mistakes with others. He wanted no part of an execution. That speaks volumes about the kind of man he was.

Just a few months before he died, Brooks and Brewer lost their lawsuit against Hayne and West, the forensics “experts” whose testimony sealed the two convictions. The federal appeals court found that while the two experts may have been grossly negligent, they were protected by qualified immunity. It was a cruel blow to two men who had already endured far more than their fair share of cruelty.

And yet Brooks was a joyous man and incredibly charismatic. He had a way of drawing you in, of quickly making you feel like an old friend. Within minutes of my meeting him, he was already making plans for he and I to go hunting. The last time I saw him, he told me that he was happy — that for the first time since getting out of prison, he felt as happy as he’d been before he went in. It was an odd thing to hear, because just a few minutes earlier, he had shown me the chemo pump attached to his abdomen.

Levon Brooks’s life was unfair — incredibly, cruelly, unspeakably unfair. Somehow, against all odds, he still found joy in it.