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The Casebook of Dr. Steven Hayne
According to NAME, a single medical examiner should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. At 325, the group considers a doctor to have a “Phase II deficiency”; at that point, it will not accredit a practice, regardless of any other criteria.
Hayne has repeatedly testified under oath that he performs more than 1,500 autopsies per year—a staggering number that dwarfs even the output of the prolific Dr. Erdmann. That’s more than four per day, every day of the year, for the 20 years Hayne’s been in Mississippi. In a 2002 deposition, Hayne put the estimate at 1,800.
What’s more, for most of his career, Hayne also has held jobs as medical director of the Rankin Medical Center (a post he left last summer) and as director of the Renal Lab, a kidney and dialysis research center. These jobs, he has testified, would take up about 55 hours per week of his time, hours not spent performing the 30 to 35 autopsies he says he does each week. (A typical autopsy should take two to three hours, but sometimes takes an entire day, depending on the condition of the body and cause of death.) Hayne has said in depositions that he also testifies “two to three to four times per week,” all across Mississippi and occasionally in Louisiana.
How does he find the time? In his testimony, Hayne has claimed
he “commonly” works 18 to 20 hours per day. He says he doesn’t take
vacations, and works every weekend and every holiday.
Until recently, Hayne performed most of his autopsies not at the state lab in Jackson but at Mississippi Mortuary Services, a funeral home owned by Jimmy Roberts, the longtime Rankin County coroner. Hayne and a few trusted assistants do most of his autopsies late at night, and the operation has a gruesome reputation. People who have visited Hayne’s practice during an autopsy session have described seeing as many as 15 bodies opened at once, with Hayne and his assistants smoking cigars, sometimes even eating sandwiches, as they go from one body to the next. Critics interviewed for this article, none of them particularly squeamish about autopsies performed under normal conditions, referred to Hayne’s operation as a “slaughterhouse,” a “sushi shop,” and a “sausage factory.”
Dwayne Wolf, a doctor who works for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office in Houston, had occasion to review one of Hayne’s autopsies when he was practicing in Alabama. “Dr. Hayne’s deficiencies are glowingly obvious when you review his work,” Wolf says. “There were a lot of things done in a substandard way.”
Harry Bonnell, a medical examiner in private practice in San Diego who sits on NAME’s ethics board, was asked by a defense attorney to review an autopsy Hayne performed in 2003 on a suspected murder victim. Bonnell was floored by Hayne’s conclusions. Using unusually strong language, Bonnell said Hayne’s conclusions were “near-total speculation,” the quality of his report was “pathetic,” and Hayne’s failure to obtain specimens from the body and perform toxicology reports “borders on criminal negligence.”
“Professionally, I think he does too many autopsies,” says Winter. “Way too many to do them in the manner they should be done.”
Vincent DiMaio, author of Forensic Pathology, widely considered the profession’s guiding textbook, says of Hayne’s remarkable annual output: “You can’t do it. After 250 [forensic] autopsies, you start making small mistakes. At 300, you’re going to get mental and physical strains on your body. Over 350, and you’re talking about major fatigue and major mistakes.” That isn’t even a quarter of the number of forensic autopsies Hayne has said he performs each year.
Just a few of the ugly results:
The Case of the Forgotten Fingernails: In February 2006, Kenneth Chandler of Columbus, Mississippi, was the victim of a gruesome homicide, stabbed to death in his home. The body was sent to Hayne for an autopsy. According to sources at the Columbus Police Department, Hayne forgot to take scrapings from under the victim’s fingernails. James Starrs, a well-respected author of several books on forensic pathology and a professor of law and forensics at George Washington University, says such an oversight is inexcusable. “You do scrapings in every autopsy,” says Starrs, “especially in a homicide, and especially in a case”—such as this one—“where the victim has defensive wounds.” Columbus police personnel had to rush to the funeral home to obtain the scrapings before the body was embalmed.
The Case of the Strangled Skeleton: In 1999 the body of Prentiss, Mississippi, resident Tanya Ward was found in a wooded area, completely skeletonized from the waist up due to decomposition and wild animals. At the trial of the accused killer, Hayne testified that Ward’s remains showed signs that were consistent with strangulation—a conclusion other medical examiners say could not be reached unless there was muscle tissue to examine. After the local public defender subjected Hayne to a vigorous cross-examination, the defendant was acquitted.
The Case of the Naturally Bludgeoned Woman: In 1998, after a woman’s body was found in the Mississippi Delta, Hayne concluded she had expired of natural causes. Because the woman was a resident of Alabama, that state’s medical examiner asked Stephen Pustilnik, at that time a state medical examiner in Birmingham, to perform a second autopsy. Pustilnik found that Hayne hadn’t even emptied the pockets of the woman’s robe. Moreover, many of the internal organs Hayne claimed to have examined in the autopsy report hadn’t been touched. The woman was later determined to have died from a blow to the head.
Pustilnik, who declined to comment more broadly on Hayne’s practices, says that in this case Hayne’s autopsy was “near complete malpractice.” Starrs says such oversights are glaring. “Emptying the pockets of personal effects, taking pictures of everything on the deceased’s person—these are really standard procedures,” Starrs says. “It’s a quintessential part of a standard autopsy.”
The Case of the $37,000 Edit: Twice in 1997, years after he’d performed the autopsies, Hayne changed his diagnosis in two infant deaths from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to asphyxiation. The abrupt change came after Hayne had been contacted by plaintiff’s attorneys who wanted him to testify on their behalf in a suit against the manufacturer of an allegedly defective infant rocker. Questioned about the cases in subsequent depositions, Hayne testified that he had changed his diagnoses after reviewing medical literature but without re-examining the bodies. In one of the cases, Hayne’s practice billed the plaintiff’s attorneys $37,000 after making the alteration.
For Starrs, such an abrupt change in diagnosis is “troublesome.” SIDS, Starrs says, is a “catch-all” diagnosis often used in infant deaths when other symptoms are lacking. “It would be very difficult to change from SIDS to asphyxiation,” he explains, because the latter is a more specific diagnosis, one that would require the presences of symptoms Hayne should have noticed during the original autopsies.