In a remarkable capital murder case earlier this year, the Mississippi Supreme Court, by an 8-to-1 vote, tossed out the expert testimony of Steven Hayne. The defendant was Tyler Edmonds, a 13-year-old boy accused of killing his sister’s husband. Hayne, Mississippi’s quasi-official state medical examiner, had testified that the victim’s bullet wounds supported the prosecution’s theory that Edmonds and his sister had shot the man together, each putting a hand on the weapon and pulling the trigger at the same time.
“I would favor that a second party be involved in that positioning of the weapon,” Hayne told the jury. “It would be consistent with two people involved. I can’t exclude one, but I think that would be less likely.”
Testifying that you can tell from an autopsy how many hands were on the gun that fired a bullet is like saying you can tell the color of a killer’s eyes from a series of stab wounds. It’s absurd. The Mississippi Supreme Court said Hayne’s testimony was “scientifically unfounded” and should not have been admitted. Based on this and other errors, it ordered a new trial for Edmonds.
But it wasn’t the doctor’s dubious claim that made the case unusual. It’s the fact that the court explicitly renounced his testimony. It was the first time that had happened to Hayne in hundreds of cases dating back nearly 20 years.
By any sane standard, the decision was long overdue. Hayne’s career in court is an egregious example of what happens when the criminal justice system fails to adequately oversee expert testimony. He may be unusually careless, but he is not unique—not in Mississippi, and not in the United States.
During the last two decades, there have been more than a dozen high-profile cases in which dubious forensic witnesses conned state and federal courts, sometimes for many years and in hundreds of cases. The most famous example is probably the West Virginia crime lab worker Fred Zain, who from 1979 to 1989 tainted so many trials with false testimony about blood, semen, and hair evidence that the state’s Supreme Court ordered a review of every case in which he’d ever testified. It turned out he had introduced deliberately falsified evidence in at least 134 cases.
Then there’s the disgraced Texas medical examiner Ralph Erdmann. Profiled in Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer’s 2000 book Actual Innocence, Erdmann dubbed himself the “Quincy of the Panhandle,” after the TV series about a peripatetic medical examiner. Erdmann claimed to perform around 400 autopsies per year, a number Scheck calls “astonishing.” His workload was so heavy, he sometimes skipped doing autopsies altogether. He once delivered a body without a head. In another case, his report included the weight of the victim’s spleen and gall bladder, which the victim’s family found odd, since both had been removed while the victim was alive. After authorities caught on to him in 1992, Erdmann was found to have faked more than 100 autopsies.
More recently, Oklahoma City was forced to review nearly 1,200 cases after the FBI found significant flaws in forensic analysis done by the police chemist Joyce Gilchrist, including problems with her hair and fiber analysis, and court testimony she presented as fact that other experts say was clearly opinion. The investigation resulted in one man’s release from death row; Gilchrist in turn was fired. Two more death row inmates were released after investigations found errors by other state forensic experts.
Such misbehavior and incompetence has persisted partly because of the complicated, highly specialized nature of the relevant fields. But Zain, Erdmann, and Gilchrist were at least eventually exposed. Hayne’s highly questionable practices are well-known in Mississippi, in neighboring states, and to forensic experts across the country. Yet he has been working in Mississippi for 20 years, and he still does the vast majority of forensic autopsies in the state. (A forensic autopsy is done to determine if the deceased died as the result of a crime or negligence; other types of autopsies are done to determine if the deceased died of a pathogen, cancer, or other medical disorder.)
Hayne, 67, has a reputation for threatening to sue his detractors, which makes many of them reluctant to speak on the record. When reformers tried to make Mississippi abide by the professional standards of forensic pathology, Hayne and his allies sabotaged their efforts and, in some cases, effectively drove them out of the state. Hayne himself did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed for this story. Phone and email queries to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state medical examiner’s office, and the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office also went unreturned.
Still, several of Hayne’s critics were willing to speak publicly about him. And what Hayne himself has conceded in trial testimony and at depositions is damning enough.
J.D. Sanders is a former Columbus, Mississippi, police chief who now works as an assistant police chief in Franklin, Tennessee. “There’s no question in my mind that there are innocent people doing time at Parchman Penitentiary due to the testimony of Dr. Hayne,” Sanders says. “There may even be some on death row.”
Ken Winter, who was director of Mississippi’s State Crime Lab from 2001 to 2004 and currently serves as executive director of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, observes that prosecutors think Hayne is an excellent witness. But there’s a lot more about being a professional and doing a good job than being an “excellent witness.” Leroy Riddick, a state medical examiner in Alabama who has testified in opposition to Hayne, adds, “All of the prosecutors in Mississippi know that if you want to be sure you get the autopsy results you want, you take the body to Dr. Hayne.”
And that’s the problem. The aim of expert testimony should be getting at the truth, not pleasing prosecutors. According to the standards set by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), the field’s pre-eminent professional organization, medical examiners “must investigate cooperatively with, but independent from, law enforcement and prosecutors. The parallel investigation promotes neutral and objective medical assessment of the cause and manner of death.”
That isn’t happening in Mississippi.