"In Mississippi, the Cause of Death Is Open to the Highest Bidder"

Over the last year, I've written several articles about how embattled Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne has corrupted the state's criminal justice system. But he's also done plenty of damage to the state's tort system, particularly in the area of medical malpractice. I touched on this a bit in my article from last October (see "The Case of the $37,000 Edit"). Mississippi's medical malpractice and tort defense attorneys are particularly critical of Hayne. They also tend to be the attorneys who give Hayne the most aggressive grillings in depositions.

One medical malpractice attorney based in Jackson told me last fall, "I don' t know why the ACLU or NAACP didn't go after this guy a long time ago. Dr. Hayne’s incompetence has only cost my clients money. I can’t believe this man’s testimony is putting people in prison."

Dr. Roger Weiner is a cardiologist in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He moved to Mississippi from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania several years ago to start a new practice.

In January 2005, an elderly man named Thomas Harrell had a heart attack, collapsed, and died during a visit to Dr. Weiner's office. According to Weiner, Harrell had several life-threatening ailments, including lung cancer and advanced heart disease. Because Harrell hit his head during his fall, Dr. Weiner ran a CAT scan, just to make sure Harrell's fall didn't contribute to his death. The scan was negative. The head injury was minimal, and wasn't a factor in Harrell's death. Harrell died of a heart attack, and Weiner filled out a death certificate listing "congestive heart failure" due to "coronary heart disease."

Weiner says he was a bit shocked, then, when several weeks later Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith filed a second certificate listing "closed head trauma" as Harrell's cause of death. Attached to Meredith's second death certificate was a letter from Dr. Steven Hayne stating there was "no question" that closed head trauma is actually what killed Harrell.

Weiner did some investigating, and found that despite the certainty with which Hayne agreed with Meredith's findings, Hayne had never actually examined Harrell's body. He issued his diagnosis based only on the observations of Meredith, the county coroner, a man with no medical training.

Weiner and the hospital he worked for were cleared early on of any liability in Harrell's death. Yet Weiner decided to fight to restore Harrell's original death certificate—he says out of principle. "Lots of money can exchange hands over a cause of death determination," Weiner told me in a phone interview. "I wanted to make sure it exchanged hands for the right reasons. Everyone down here knows about Dr. Hayne. Tens of millions of health insurance dollars have gone to plaintiff’s lawyers down here because of him."

Weiner wouldn't speculate as to why Meredith would have wanted to change Harrell's cause of death. But other malpractice attorneys I've talked to, while asserting that they have no knowledge about this specific case, say an official cause of death that's listed as an accident can be much more lucrative on a life insurance policy than a death by natural causes.

The case eventually reached the Mississippi State Supreme Court on the matter of whether the local chancery court had the jurisdiction to amend the death certificate, or whether as the county coroner, Meredith's determination of cause of death should be the final say. The court ruled in Weiner's favor, and ordered the chancery court to hold an evidentiary hearing to determine who was right about why Harrell died.  Oddly, after pursuing the case to the state Supreme Court, Meredith dropped the case after that ruling.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to reach Meredith over the phone to discuss the case.

"I took a second look at Mr. Harrell at the request of his family," Meredith told me.

I asked, "And then you called in Dr. Hayne to look at the body?"

"No. Dr. Hayne never examined the body."

"How could he have been so conclusive about the cause of death if he never saw the body?"

"He agreed with my assessment."

"And do you have any medical training?

"Yes."

"You do?"

"Yes."

"Actual medical training, or death investigation training?"

"I have death investigation training."

"And most of the death investigation training for Mississippi coroners is done by Dr. Hayne, right?"

"A lot of it, yes."

"The CAT scan on Mr. Harrell was negative, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

"So Dr. Hayne took the word of a coroner with no medical training over the word of an MD, and changed the cause of death without ever examining the body himself?"

"He trusted my investigation."

"Why did you withdraw your death certificate after the state supreme court ruling? You could have had an evidentiary hearing on the cause of death in chancery court, and you and Dr. Hayne could have made your case there."

"After speaking with the family, we decided to drop the matter."

"But you fought it all the way to the state supreme court. If your diagnosis was correct, why drop it rather than face an evidentiary hearing?"

"Like I said, I talked to the family, and they asked me to drop the case."

Dr. Weiner wouldn't comment on Meredith specifically, but says more generally that with the aid of Dr. Hayne, Mississippi's county coroners and plaintiff's attorneys are defrauding doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies out of millions of dollars (Hayne was recently sued by one hospital insurer, though I haven't been able to determine how that case was resolved).

"In Mississippi, the cause of death is open to the highest bidder," Weiner told me.

Hayne charges three times as much for private autopsies as he does for state autopsies; he also charges about three times his normally hourly rate for trial testimony and preparation.

This brings us to another problem: Public defenders in Mississippi are notoriously underpaid. For all but a few, it's a part-time position. Cities and counties typically pay less than $10,000 per year to their designated public defender. Consequently, most of the state's public defenders make their actual living in private practice, many as plaintiff's attorneys. When they need an autopsy done in a medical malpractice or wrongful death case, Hayne's often the only game in town.

Hayne, then, has managed to position himself as the lifeline for both law-and-order district attorneys and more left-leaning plaintiff's attorneys, many of whom are also their town or county's designated public defender.

I should add, here, that I've met several dedicated, hard-working public defenders in Mississippi who have done all they can to rid the state of Hayne. But those people tend to be full-time defense attorneys. It isn't difficult to see the conflict of interest problems when the same medical examiner on whom you depend to make your living in your private practice is also giving overtly pro-prosecution testimony in your criminal cases, for which you're only paid a few thousand dollars per year. Why risk angering Hayne in a criminal case when it may come back to bite you in the cases where you make your livelihood?

It goes a long way toward explaining why Mississippi's defense bar hasn't taken a more aggressive stand against Hayne over the years. On the other side, Hayne's favor with the state's district attorneys and politicians may help explain why no one took a hard look at him when the state passed a comprehensive tort reform package a few years ago.

He seems to have created a nice little niche for himself.

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  • TallDave||

    I bid $100 on Colonel Mustard, in the Conservatory, with the Candlestick.

  • Penn Jillette||

    His name is Wiener for christsakes!

    Wiener!
    Wiener!
    Wiener!

  • ||

    Damn Radley. Your Mississippi columns are adding up. Put them all together and you've got the makings of a documentary expose.

  • Rimfax||

    If he's making such serious cash, why hasn't someone else tried to tap that gravy train?

  • Episiarch||

    The breadth of this guy's scammage is stunning. Is he rich? Because if he isn't he either likes the ponies or the blow or the Emperor's Club.

    Who will play Radley in the movie?

  • Nutter||

    Radley Balko alone justifies the existence of Reason. But I don't expect this post to get as much attention as one with a girl kissing a lobster.

  • ||

    But I don't expect this post to get as much attention as one with a girl kissing a lobster.


    I don't get the urge to beat off when I read a Balko post. But don't confuse attention with number of posts.

  • thoreau||

    Radley, you are doing God's work.

    I may have to start donating to Reason, above and beyond my subscription. Or maybe I'll get a second subscription and leave the second copy on a table in the campus cafeteria, or something.

  • ||

    I wonder how many people see this and think, "It's Mississippi- what do you expect? But it could never happen where I live."

    I suspect there is a lot of sloppy forensic work out there. Hayne is just a prodigy.

  • ||

    Damn Radley. You really are Hayne's nemesis. How cool is it to be someone's nemesis!

  • ||

    thoreau,
    Everytime somebody threatens to cancel a subscription on one of these threads, I'm tempted to take out another in the name of a library or something. But a donation to the foundation seems simpler.

  • ||

    I say we make American Samoa a state and Mississippi a territory. Territories receive much more oversight and Mississippi corely needs it.

  • ||

    Radley Balko alone justifies the existence of Reason. But I don't expect this post to get as much attention as one with a girl kissing a lobster.

    Balko's side boobage just isn't as good!

  • ||

    I hope "Dr." Hayne faces the death penalty, just like the people he put behind bars by his lies.

  • ||

    I wonder how many people see this and think, "It's Mississippi- what do you expect?
    And I wonder how many of them live in Mississippi.

  • WantedToBeALawyer||

    +1

  • ||

    Vanessa,
    In my experience, it is often not cool to be the nemesis of a powerful and connected man in Mississippi. It often ends very badly.

    Warren,
    I lived in Ms. for a time in the late 70s/early 80s. Back then the common folk tended to keep their head down and mouth shut and went about their business. It could be dangerous back then not to. I assume old habits die hard.

  • ||

  • ||

    The above is not a rickroll I swear.

  • Nutter||

    I don't get the urge to beat off when I read a Balko post

    OK, but do you get that urge from the girl or the lobster?

  • Nutter||

    Balko's side boobage just isn't as good!

    Turn off "safe search" on Google. You'd be surprised what's out there!

  • ||

    Nutter,
    I googled side boobage, no body can touch lobster girl. She is teh hawt.

  • Thomas Paine\'s Goiter||

    Buying a subscription for a library or a student union will get more people turned on. Of course, it's the people that have no money to give to the foundation, so pick yer poison.


    Radley - when Hayne finally gets convicted, I'm sending you a mini bonsai tree.

  • ||

    Personally, I want to marry Radley when I grow up.

    Hayne (Porky) and the other LITTLE RASCALS, the DA's (Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Froggy..., will get theirs. KARMA will bite them on their fat incompetent, unethical, scheming country asses when they least expect it.

    Meanwhile innocent people like Devin Bennett, Jeffrey Havard languish on DEATH ROW and others like Brett Jones wait a LIFETIME.

    Mini Bonsai tree? When Hayne gets convicted, I'll send Radley a whole damned forest of them AND plan to be sitting FRONT ROW AND CENTER in the COURTROOM...

    Hmmm...let me see...judge, courtroom, me, Radley = marriage?

  • ||

    Radley - when Hayne finally gets convicted, I'm sending you a mini bonsai tree.

    Mini bonsai? As opposed to those great big bonsais.

  • Higest||

    HIGEST bidder?

  • ||

    "Hayne (Porky) and the other LITTLE RASCALS, the DA's (Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Froggy..., will get theirs. KARMA will bite them on their fat incompetent, unethical, scheming country asses when they least expect it."

    - - -

    There is no karma, there is no heaven, there is no magical power that evens out justice so that the evil eventually suffer. Those are merely concepts designed, mostly by those same evil people, to convince the rest of us to shut up and take it, that it'll all be made right "in the end."

    Sadly, however, the reality is that that's where we all get it - "in the end."

  • ||

    (Part 2, I guess.)

    Having now read this, as well as the "$37k edit" article, my reaction as a trial lawyer is:

    Who the hell is watching the prosecutors? In my state, any prosecutor who tried to use someone like this, with this kind of verifiable record, wouldn't just lose trials.

    They'd lose their jobs, and then their licenses.

    Any prosecutor who would present this crap to a jury would be in violation of their professional ethical code. A prosecutor's job isn't to get convictions - it's to get justice. Has anyone tallied up which individual prosecutors use this charlatan the most? Go after their butts, too! List them nationally, by name, and let them die slowly of professional shame and embarrassment.

    Jeeze. Mississippi just keeps on proving evolutionary theory by showing the clear developmental difference between modern man and the first walking apes.

  • ||

    Has anyone tallied up which individual prosecutors use this charlatan the most?

    You're damned skippy there is someone TALLYING.
    The Innnocence Project filed a FORMAL complaint May 2008 with the State Medical Review Board asking for all records of trials at which Hayne testified and demanding the revocation of the license (whatever that is). There is a NEWSCAST in which the anchor comments that when asked, Hayne could not recall the agency that 'certified' him. This is also in many written articles as well.

    Here is the link for the response The Innocence Project has gotten so far...lame excuses. The DA's are stalling and trying to see how they can successfully pick this TURD up by the 'clean end'.

    http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080529/NEWS01/805290320

  • دردشة يمنية||

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