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Two coroners with strong ties to Hayne emerged as Ward’s most vocal critics. One was Jimmy Roberts, the owner of the funeral home where, until recently, Hayne did most of his autopsies. The other was Michael West of Forrest County, a dentist who is frequently present at Hayne’s autopsies, whom Hayne has cited in depositions as a reference for his credibility, and who has collaborated with him on presentations and journal articles.
West, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has his own credibility problems. He claims to have perfected a method of identifying bite marks using laser light and orange goggles that he modestly calls “the West Phenomenon.” He has said his error rate in bite mark analysis is “something less” than the error rate of “my savior, Jesus Christ” and has compared his bite mark virtuosity with the musical talent of Itzhak Perlman. West once claimed he could trace the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich at a crime scene to a suspect. After exposés of West appeared on 60 Minutes and in Newsweek and The National Law Journal, prosecutors in Mississippi largely stopped using him, although there are still people in prison because of his testimony.
It was West who circulated a petition among the state’s county coroners calling for Ward’s resignation. Forty-two of the state’s 82 coroners signed the document, which accused Ward of failing to support the coroners, diminishing their authority, improperly assisting defense counsel in criminal cases, and attempting to “establish a political power base.” West told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 1995 that the state’s Department of Public Safety had “never been able to keep this woman under control.”
The Clarion-Ledger contacted 30 of the 42 signatories to West’s petition and learned that most of them sent their autopsies to Hayne. The paper also found that more than half of the signatories repeated hearsay about Ward they’d heard from other coroners, and could cite no personal grievances against her. The paper concluded that the petition was the result of a “power struggle” between Hayne and Ward.
Not all of Mississippi’s coroners agreed with West’s assessment of Ward. One told the paper the petition was “baseless” and “looked like a group of fifth-graders had written it.” Another lamented that “a small group of individuals for whatever reason—for personal gain or personal ego—have continued to badger Dr. Ward.”
Qualified medical examiners outside of Mississippi seemed to agree. Jamie Downs, who serves on NAME’s board of directors and now practices in Georgia, hired Ward to work for him when he was Alabama’s state medical examiner. “We knew what happened in Mississippi,” Downs says, referring to Ward’s experience in Jackson. “And I’ll just say that hiring Dr. Ward was a no-brainer. She’s a well-qualified, competent medical examiner. And that alone puts her in a completely different league than Dr. Hayne.”
Ward resigned her position in Mississippi in June 1995. The office has been vacant ever since.
Battered but Not Yet Beaten
When the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out Hayne’s testimony in the Tyler Edmonds case, it was an act long overdue. But the court didn’t go nearly far enough. In a concurring opinion Justice Oliver Diaz wrote that “there are serious concerns over Dr. Hayne’s qualifications to provide expert testimony.” Noting Hayne’s troublingly high number of autopsies and his lack of certification, Diaz concluded that the court should not “qualify Dr. Hayne as an expert in forensic pathology.” That understates what’s needed: a comprehensive review of every case in which Hayne has ever testified, the sort of review that has been conducted following other forensic expert scandals across the country.
Despite Diaz’s view, the majority in Edmonds upheld Hayne’s continued good standing as a certified forensic pathology expert in Mississippi. That means Hayne will continue his marathon all-night autopsy sessions. District attorneys will continue to send him bodies, knowing they can count on a supportive diagnosis. The state medical examiner’s office will remain vacant. And Hayne’s testimony will continue to put people in prison, even on death row.
The problems with forensic testimony extend beyond Mississippi.
In March, Joseph Kopera,
a frequent prosecution witness in Maryland’s state courts and in federal courts on ballistics matters, committed suicide after he was confronted with evidence that he had lied in court about his academic credentials. Kopera had testified in hundreds of criminal trials before being exposed. Those cases will now be reviewed.
To its credit, the Maryland legislature responded by passing one of the most thorough laws in the country implementing oversight of forensic labs, establishing an independent oversight board, and codifying the standards and best practices recommended by professional organizations. Experts such as DiMaio say Mississippi could solve many of its problems through similar safeguards, such as requiring that any medical examiner certified by its courts meet NAME’s minimum standards.
A 2004 Chicago Tribune investigation of 200 DNA-based exonerations in Illinois found that more than a quarter involved faulty or fraudulent testimony by expert forensic witnesses. Hundreds of cases have been reviewed after deficient or fraudulent expert testimony was discovered in the Houston medical examiner’s office and in state crime labs in Washington state, Virginia, and Maryland. Even the FBI’s crime lab has come under scrutiny.
In those cases, the malefactors were identified and efforts were made to undo the damage they caused. Unfortunately, little has changed in Mississippi.
Ken Winter, who often worked with Hayne while running the state crime lab, thinks real change is unlikely unless the system’s shortcomings end up hurting someone with political influence. Asked why there haven’t been any serious reforms, he replies, “It sounds awful to say this, but it’s probably because the right person hasn’t been killed yet.”
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason.