Old File Shows Problems With Mississippi's Dr. Hayne Date Back to Early 1990s

This past June, I was in Louisiana to do some reporting on a possible story.  While there, i was able to track down an old file that a rival had kept on the embattled and now former Mississippi medical examiner, Dr. Steven Hayne.

I've previously explained how in addition to his stranglehold on Mississippi's autopsy business, beginning in the early 1990s, Hayne and his frequent collaborator Dr. Michael West started performing autopsies in several Louisiana parishes, too.  At the time, the forensic pathologist Dr. George McCormick was doing most of the autopsies in Louisiana.  Well aware of Hayne's problems, McCormick assigned another doctor in his office to begin compiling a dossier of complaints against Hayne.  

I should note here that Dr. McCormick had his own ethical problems.  After his death in 2005, Louisiana officials discovered that McCormick had signed off on autopsies performed by unqualified members of his staff, among other transgressions.  McCormick was also upset that Hayne was cutting into his own business as Louisiana's quasi-official state medical examiner.

But McCormick's office merely compiled the dossier on Hayne.  The letters, complaints, and inquiries about Hayne came from other, quite reputable medical examiners from across the south.

I had been trying to track down a copy of McCormick's file on Hayne for a couple of years.  I was finally able to find one while I was in Louisiana.  Essentially, the file further confirms much of what we already know about Hayne, with a few new details.  

Most of the file's documents are from the early- to mid-1990s, and they further put the lie to the line now coming from state officials in Mississippi—that for 20 years, Mississippi has been overwhelmed with criminal autopsies, and that in doing an incredible 1,500-2,000 autopsies per year, Dr. Hayne has been doing the state a great favor.  The truth is, Mississippi officials used Dr. Hayne because he told them what they wanted to hear.  More reputable doctors lost out, and moved elsewhere.  Hayne and his allies in Mississippi government ran out anyone who tried to compete with him, particularly anyone who tried to conduct autopsies in a more impartial manner.  The file also provides further evidence that state officials, professional medical organizations, and the local media were made aware of Hayne's considerable shortcomings 15 years ago.  They did nothing about it.

Dr. McCormick's file should come in handy for Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, or any of the likely other wrongful conviction cases to come involving Hayne should they want to sue the state of Mississippi for damages.  McCormick's file shows that the state had every reason get rid of Dr. Hayne more than a decade ago.  Instead, the state's public officials gave him all the business he could handle.

The documents in the file further confirm that Hayne's domination of Mississippi's autopsy system wasn't by accident.  It was by design.  For example, as I explained in my reason feature on Hayne last October, in the mid-1990s, Hayne, the disgraced Dr. Michael West, and several of Mississippi's county coroners and district attorneys engaged in an enormous power struggle with Mississippi's last official state medical examiner, Dr. Emily Ward.  The old guard was angry with Ward because she wanted to set some minimum standards in autopsy procedures. She wanted coroners to have some training, medical examiners to be certified, and for the state lab to get official accreditation from that National Association of Medical Examiners.  At the time, Dr. Hayne was conducting his marathon, all-night, six-to-ten-at-a-time autopsy sessions in a Pearl, Mississippi funeral home.

Ward also wanted autopsies to be impartial.  Ward's predecessor, Dr. Lloyd White—who was also chased out by the good ol' boys—had explained how when he would tell a district attorney that his autopsy didn't support the DA's case , the DA would merely take the body to Hayne, who would then give the prosecutor the diagnosis he was looking for.  When they would do this to Dr. Ward, she would infuriate the state's prosecutors by calling up the defense counsel and offering to testify for them.  Of course, if the evidence doesn't support the state's case, that's exactly what any impartial, science-based medical examiner should do.  Mississippi DAs then wrote angry letters to the Mississippi commissioner of public safety complaining that Dr. Ward wasn't doing her part as part of the prosecution's team.

The documents in McCormick's file also show that medical examiners across the south who were familiar with Hayne's work weighed in on the Hayne-Ward feud, and tried to get Mississippi officials to do the right thing—back Dr. Ward in her attempt to impose some professional standards in the state.  And of course, that would have effectively put an end to Dr. Hayne's autopsy practice.

But Mississippi officials ignored the warnings from the other doctors.  Dr. Ward was forced to resign, and for the next 13 years, Dr. Hayne did 80-90 percent of Mississippi's autopsies—all the while unsupervised by a qualified, board-certified state medical examiner.  

So if Hayne's no longer doing autopsies in Mississippi, why does all of this matter?  Because Mississippi officials don't seem interested in assessing the damage he's done, in making a serious effort to see how many innocent people he has helped convict, or how many guilty people his testiomny has allowed to go free.

Even after Hayne was effectively barred from doing any more autopsies in the state last month, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the editorial staff at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson, and the state's district attorneys either praised or excused him for his "service" to Mississippi.  They've cited his willingness to take on a heavy workload as an excuse for his sloppiness. In doing so, they're effectively muting calls for a thorough investigation of the damage he's done to Mississippi's criminal justice system, and they're heading off any momentum toward reopening the thousands of cases in which Hayne has testified.

DNA testing cleared Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, and it will likely clear others in Mississippi.  But there are a significant number of other criminal cases in which someone was convicted based mostly or entirely on Hayne's testimony, or where Hayne's testimony was at trial or has since been challenged by a qualified, board-certified forensic pathologist, but the case isn't amenable to DNA testing.  The Jeffrey Havard, Henry Moses, and Devin Bennett cases are three examples.  These cases won't see any real justice until Mississippi comes to terms with the truth about Dr. Hayne.

Over the next several days, I'll roll out the most significant documents in Dr. McCormick's file on Hayne, and explain their significance.

CORRECTION:  I've made a correction to this post, dealing with how Dr. Emily Ward came to work with defense counsel.  See here.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • the innominate one||

    this situation seems like an actual, legitimate case for the US DOJ civil rights divison to investigate thoroughly, since Mississippi shows no interest in revisiting past cases.

  • Naga Sadow||

    Keep up the good work, Radley. But now I gotta go into work glum. It's bad for business.

  • Kolohe||

    Is there going to be a book coming out by you on all this?

  • ||

    I need to make a macro for this.

    Thank you so much for your tireless efforts in the name of justice, Radley.

  • ||

    Wow, all the way back to the 90s! That was a LONG time ago wasnt it!

    Jiff
    www.anonymize.kr.tc

  • ||

    You're the only one keeping this site from completely turning into petty bullshit during election season, Radley. Good Jorb!

  • ||

    great work Radley -- keep sticking with it!

  • ||

    "In doing so, they're effectively muting calls for a thorough investigation of the damage he's done to Mississippi's criminal justice system, and they're heading off any momentum toward reopening the thousands of cases in which Hayne has testified."

    Yep. They're covering their asses, and trying to keep Mississippi from admitting fault and thus guaranteeing losses on all those cases. When you add that to how many of them probably work on a theory of "most of these guys are guilty of something, even if not what we put them behind bars for, so we don't want them all out on the street," it doesn't look good for truth and justice.

    At least your important work helped bring him down for now. Keep fighting.

  • 49erDweet||

    Is there some type of demarcation line when one crosses into the State of Mississippi where oaths from public officials are listed under a giant "Kings X" and no longer have effect?

    The "honor of southern gentlemen" is exposed here as an extremely shallow sham, existing only for career enhancement and to enrich personal fortunes. Shame, shame, shame. Every judge in every court in the state should be fired, and every prosecutor who refuses to seek justice in this situation should be disbarred.

    The next meeting of Mississippi's "good old boy" network may need to be convened in Leavenworth, KS.

  • Mad Max||

    Go, Radley, go Radley, go go go Radley!

  • ||

    Small correction: There is no "Rankin, MS." There is a Rankin County, however.

    Keep up the good work. Justice has been denied for too long.

    Tom on the rez.

  • Radley Balko||

    Small correction: There is no "Rankin, MS." There is a Rankin County, however.

    My mistake. The funeral home is in Pearl, in Rankin County.

  • anarch||

    My mistake.


    Why is that so hard for public servants to say?

    Don't worry, RB, your work covers a multitude of errors (and not the way some forensic pathologists' work does.)


  • uh,||

    ).

  • ||

    It does seem like badgering the US DOJ rather than Mississippi about this would produce more effects, faster, though.

  • ||

    My mistake.

    Why is that so hard for public servants to say?



    The standard public servant apology, Magnolia State district attorney version -

    "I regret that my good intentions and zealous pursuit of the criminal element has occasionaly slightly overstepped the bounds of propriety. I will continue to protect the people of Mississippi by steadfastly pursuing justice and the criminals in our great state".

    Do not expect "I screwed the pooch, denied justice to many accused, often innocent, citizens by turning a blind eye to incompetence and perjury for decades".

  • ||

    Thanks Radley for your continued work on this. I for one am infinitely grateful to you.

    I was just reading again over the weekend Tyler Edmond's 1-6-07 SC decision and Justice Diaz' dessenting opinion. He wrote:

    II. This Court Cannot Qualify Dr. Hayne as an Expert.

    91. While the majority finds that "Dr. Hayne is qualified to proffer expert opinions in forensic pathology", that determination is exclusively left to the trial courts; we only review that determination. No expert is Daubert-proof. As science, like the law, evolves over time, one generation's expert is another's quack.

    In Tyler's case, there was a full day devoted to a Daubert hearing on a false confession expert who was ultimately disqualified, but absolutely no time spent on a hearing on whether Hayne was qualified as a forensic pathologist. The court spent a whole day discrediting the defense expert, but not a minute qualifying the state expert, Dr. Hayne who by this time had become controversial and Tyler's defense lawyer had questioned Hayne's credentials.

    The majority of the Supreme Court said in their opinion that Hayne was qualified as an expert, but his opinion on the two-finger theory was erroneously allowed into testimony because it was speculation. They said:

    7. "While Dr. Hayne is qualified to proffer expert opinions in forensic pathology, a court should not give such an expert carte blanche to proffer any opinion he chooses. There was no showing that Dr. Hayne's testimony was based, not on opinions or speculation, but rather on scientific methods and procedures."

    It is astonishing to me that even in 2007, the majority of the MS Supreme Court was still qualifying Hayne as an expert while at the same time acknowledging his whacky theories, as well.....whacky.

    Diaz wrote that the "Court should not give Dr. Hayne, or any expert, a free pass to testify before our juries."

    It took a year and a half after Diaz wrote this to get Hayne out of the courtroom.

    It will eventually be obvious that Hayne hasn't done the state of Mississippi any favors. Hark, I hear the whacky shacky calling and and it's for Dr. Hayne.

  • ||

    It looks more like the State of Mississippi was doing Hayne the favors, not the other way around.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement