Editor's Note: The following article contains graphic and disturbing photographs and video excerpts of an examination conducted on the body of a 23-month-old girl. The images are the basis of claims that forensic experts fabricated evidence in a case that put a man on death row, where he awaits exoneration or execution.
For most of the last 20 years, doctors Steven Hayne and Michael West have served as expert forensic witnesses for the state of Mississippi. Until 2008, Hayne served as the de facto state medical examiner, dominating a criminal autopsy market in which prosecutors contract out examinations to favored private doctors. West, a dentist, served one term as the elected coroner in Forest County, Mississippi in the 1990s and partly through his work with Hayne became a popular bite-mark examiner among prosecutors. Both men have come under intense scrutiny for questionable working procedures and dubious testimony—West off and on for 15 years, Hayne mostly in the last two. Reason has been following Hayne's deteriorating career since an October 2006 article that detailed his role in putting a possibly innocent man named Cory Maye on death row (see an archive of our Hayne-related reporting at: www.reason.com/hayne).
Last year, two men that Hayne and West helped convict of murder in the early 1990s, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, were exonerated and freed from prison through DNA testing after serving more than 30 years combined behind bars. Both men had been accused of raping and murdering the daughters of their respective girlfriends. In what has come to be a pattern with the two doctors, in each case Hayne claimed to have found in an initial autopsy what other examiners missed: bite marks on the victim's body. He then called in West, a forensic odontologist (dental examiner), who definitively matched bite marks to the defendants. Partly because of the testimony from Hayne and West, Brooks was sentenced to life in prison, and Brewer to death (he spent 14 years on death row). DNA testing in 2008 determined that the semen found on both girls belonged to a third man, 51-year-old Albert Johnson. As Brooks and Brewer were freed, Johnson confessed to both crimes.
The Brooks and Brewer cases form their own forensics riddle: How could West and Hayne have definitively linked previously undetected bite marks on the victims to two men who didn't commit the murders?
Reason recently obtained shocking video from another Hayne and West collaboration that may shed light on the question. In 1993, the two conducted an examination on a 23-month-old girl named Haley Oliveaux of West Monroe, Louisiana, who had drowned in her bathtub. The video shows bite marks mysteriously appearing on the toddler's face during the time she was in the custody of Hayne and West. It then shows West repeatedly and methodically pressing and scraping a dental mold of a man's teeth on the dead girl's skin. Forensic scientists who have viewed the footage say the video reveals not only medical malpractice, but criminal evidence tampering.
How Jimmie Duncan Landed on Death Row
Haley Oliveaux did not have a happy young life. Her mother was divorced. Her father was in prison. In November 1993, she was twice taken to the hospital after suffering seizures. On November 29 of that year, she was again admitted to the hospital, this time after allegedly pulling a chest of drawers down on top of herself while climbing to reach for a piggy bank. She suffered multiple skull fractures in the incident and, notably, some bruising on her left elbow. An investigation by the West Monroe Police Department and Ouachita Parish Child Protective Services found no evidence of abuse and no reason to doubt the piggy bank story.
Three weeks later, on December 18, Allison Oliveaux went to work at 8:45 a.m., leaving Haley in Jimmie Duncan's care. According to Duncan, he gave Haley a bath later that morning, and left her in the bathtub while he washed some dishes. At around 10:30 a.m., Duncan said, he returned to the bathroom to find her lying motionless in the tub. Duncan said he rushed Haley to the house next door, where neighbor Floyd Bennett tried to administer CPR while his son called an ambulance. The ambulance crew described Duncan as hysterical and weeping. Haley was taken to the hospital, and pronounced dead shortly thereafter. After admitting to the police that he'd left Haley alone in the tub, Jimmie Duncan was arrested and charged with negligent homicide, or criminal inaction leading to another person's death.
But after the autopsy and examination by Hayne and West,
prosecutors raised the charges. Citing the bite-mark analysis,
along with other evidence, prosecutors charged Duncan with capital
murder, alleging that he raped Haley Oliveaux in the bathtub,
forced her head underwater, bit her, and drowned her. Five years
later, even though the only physical evidence directly linking him
to the girl was the bite-mark analysis, Jimmie Duncan was tried,
convicted, and sentenced to death. He has been on death row in
Louisiana for 10 years.
Louisiana had its own medical examiners at the time who were closer to the scene of the crime. Nonetheless, Haley Oliveaux's body was taken from Glenwood Regional Medical Center in West Monroe, Louisiana, 120 miles east to Jackson, Mississippi, so it could be autopsied by Hayne. At the time, Hayne, who has never been certified in forensic pathology, was performing the majority of autopsies in Mississippi, some 1,200-1,500 per year. That's an output other forensic pathologists describe as impossible (he was also holding down two hospital jobs and testifying regularly in court).
Despite his heavy workload in Mississippi, Hayne, with West by his side, began looking for business in Louisiana, too. In October 1993, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported that officials in Ouachita Parish (where West Monroe is located) were considering sending criminal autopsies to Hayne, despite concerns expressed by other medical examiners about the quality of his work. Oliveaux was one of Hayne's first autopsies for Ouachita Parish, according to testimony from Duncan's trial. Among those who traveled 120 miles to observe the examination were the West Monroe police chief, a police detective and captain, plus two assistant district attorneys. Though it isn't particularly unusual for a district attorney or police officer to witness an autopsy, it is unusual for them to travel two hours and cross state lines to do so. The National Association of Medical Examiners discourages doctors from speaking to law enforcement officials before conducting exams because because doing so can bias a doctor's conclusions. At Duncan's trial five years later, one of his attorneys likened the Oliveaux autopsy to a job evaluation. If it was, Hayne passed. By that time Hayne was performing the bulk of Ouachita Parish's criminal autopsies, 30 to 40 per year.
Hayne testified that during an initial examination of Oliveaux's body, he was able to find bite marks that at the time no other medical professional had noticed—just as he'd done in the Brewer and Brooks cases before. And just as it happened in the Brewer and Brooks cases, Hayne's discovery of potential bite marks gave local authorities probable cause to obtain a plaster dental mold of the defendant's teeth, in this case Jimmie Duncan. Hayne then called in West to perform his unique brand of "analysis." West concluded that the marks were made by human teeth belonging to the man police and prosecutors suspected of killing the child.
Hayne and West videotaped many of their autopsies and forensic examinations over the years. For whatever reason, the video of West's examination of Haley Oliveaux was preserved, and Duncan's post-conviction attorneys found it in the district attorney's file last year. They were shocked at what they saw. The full video is 24 minutes long. The brief excerpts that follow show Oliveaux's face on successive days. At the start of the videotaped examination from December 18, 1993, her right cheek appears free of any noticeable marks. Yet after the tape cuts to December 19, 1993, the cheek shows prominent signs of abrasions, which are then exacerbated by West's handiwork.
Warning: These video excerpts, approximately 30 seconds long, contain disturbing images.