Criminal Justice

Innocence Project Calls for Investigation Into Dr. Hayne

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The national chapter of the Innocence Project has sent a letter to Mississippi's Dept. of Public Safety demanding an inquiry into Dr. Stephen Hayne, the Mississippi medical examiner I first wrote about in my article on Cory Maye back in October 2006, then covered in an investigative piece for reason in November of last year.

The letter states:

"By law, the State Medical Examiner must be a board-certified forensic pathologist. The State Medical Examiner is appointed by, and serves at the pleasure of, the Commissioner of Public Safety. The State Legislature created the position in order to organize and standardize the work of medical examiners across the state and to raise the level of forensic services statewide. Two pathologists served as State Medical Examiners in the mid- to late-1980s, and in 1987 Stephen Hayne was appointed Interim State Medical Examiner. Because he is not a board-certified forensic pathologist, he was set to be removed from the interim position, so he resigned. Two subsequent State Medical Examiners were appointed, until Mr. Hayne and his allies forced the last State Medical Examiner from office in the mid-1990s. This critical position has been vacant since then.

"Although a full investigation of cases involving Mr. Hayne has not been conducted, it is clear that in the cases of Mr. Brewer and Mr. Brooks, Mr. Hayne ignored the applicable science and objective facts. He provided improper testimony to help convict two innocent men in capital murder cases. In each case, he wrongly described indiscriminate scratches and bruises as human bite marks. He then compounded the error by securing an incorrect confirmation from his frequent employee and colleague, Michael West. Recently, a peer-review panel of top forensic odontologists from England, Canada and the United States issued a report completely rejecting Hayne's and West's conclusions in the cases of Mr. Brewer and Mr. Brooks.

[…]

"We would be happy to furnish you any additional background on Mr. Hayne's work in these cases and the urgent need for forensic oversight in this area. We ask for your urgent attention to this matter. The grave consequences illustrated by the cases of Mr. Brewer and Mr. Brooks call for the prompt appointment and full funding of a qualified State Medical Examiner, which falls directly under your authority."

Hayne never responded to my requests for an interview. He did however respond to the Jackson Clarion Ledger for this story:

Contacted for comment, Hayne responded, "I am board certified, and my work has been reviewed by impartial reviewers."

He pointed out the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology reviewed his work on more than 50 jailhouse hangings in the early 1990s and concluded, just as he did, that each was suicide.

[…]

Hayne responded today that his work has been regularly reviewed and upheld as valid.

"When you don't have facts, you have a tendency to engage in character assassination," Hayne said.

Actually, the AFIP reviewed a case in the late 1990s in which a woman was savagely beaten to death, and Hayne weirdly determined she had died of a stroke. His autopsy was first reviewed by Dr. Stephen Pustilnik, then practicing in Alabama. Dr. Pustilnik told me Hayne's autopsy in that case was "new complete malpractice." Hayne had failed to empty the woman's pockets, a standard autopsy procedure. Pustilnik also found that internal organs Hayne claimed in his report to have examined hadn't been touched.

Hayne's autopsy was eventually sent to AFIP. According to Pustilnik, AFIP's review of Hayne's work was critical. When I called AFIP, I was put in touch with the doctor who reviewed Hayne's work in that case. All I had to say was "I'm writing a story about a medical examiner in Mississippi," and he immediately knew who I was talking about. He said he'd love to talk with me about Hayne, but that I'd first need to get clearance from the AFIP's information office. Unfortunately, they called me back to say they were barred by HIPAA privacy regulations from discussing their review of Hayne's work with me. That is, talking to me would have violated the privacy of the dead woman. I've since learned that this may have been a misapplication of HIPAA.

Thus far, I haven't been able to get in touch with the woman's family to get their okay for the doctors to speak with me. The woman's death was officially ruled a homicide, though no one was ever charged in the case. Her family filed a civil rights lawsuit, but I haven't yet been able to determine how it was resolved.

If you're wondering why Hayne would have ruled a clear homicide a death by "natural causes," so was I. On background, several of Hayne's critics have told me that in some areas of Mississippi, prosecutors simply don't want to deal with murder cases, particularly when they involve low-income people. That seems to be consistent with what people in Prentiss, Mississippi have repeatedly told me about crime in Jefferson Davis County. "Murders don't seem to get solved around here" is a popular refrain down there. A few critics of Hayne told me that they're actually more concerned about the number of people who get away with murder down there han the number who get wrongly convicted.

Hayne is also wrong when he says his work has "been regularly reviewed and upheld as valid." Over the last year, I've spoken with more than a dozen medical examiners about Dr. Hayne. I've heard lots of colorful adjectives used to describe him. "Valid" was never one of them. His autopsies have been repudiated over and over again by other doctors, both in court and in civil depositions. I have copies of scathing reviews of his work written by his peers.

There is also at least one complaint against Hayne now pending at the National Association of Medical Examiners. It was filed by a member of the group's ethics committee. After my article ran last fall, Dr. Joseph Prahlow, the immediate past president of the organization called to tell me the organization is very concerned about Hayne, and plans to address the issue this spring. NAME is moving far too slow for my taste, particularly given that Hayne's testimony is still putting people in prison. But Dr. Prahlow emphasized that they haven't yet acted should by no means be interpreted to mean that they endorse Hayne's practices.

NEXT: McCarthy and His Friends

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  1. He pointed out the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology reviewed his work on more than 50 jailhouse hangings in the early 1990s and concluded, just as he did, that each was suicide.

    What percentage of jailhouse hangings aren’t suicide?

    Unfortunately, they called me back to say they were barred by HIPAA privacy regulations from discussing their review of Hayne’s work with me. That is, talking to me would have violated the privacy of the dead woman. I’ve since learned that this may have been a misapplication of HIPAA.

    Actually, your medical privacy rights do survive your death under HIPAA. The question is whether the AFIP (or the Mississippi ME) are subject to HIPAA. Unless they bill third party payers for health care, they aren’t.

  2. Keep up the good work Radley. As many have said before, the thing about the stories you track is that they directly affect the lives of individuals otherwise ignored. It’s a welcome thing in the face of the gossip-column business most journalists make themselves comfortable with

  3. A few critics of Hayne told me that they’re actually more concerned about the number of people who get away with murder down there han the number who get wrongly convicted.

    So at first with the wrongful convictions we seemed to have “it is better that a few innocent people go to jail rather than letting one guilty person go free.”

    Then once we realized that wrongful convictions also stop pursuing the real murderer, it became “it is better that a few innocent people go to jail rather than taking the risk of not convicting somebody.”

    Now it’s become “it is better when a few innocent people bolster our conviction rates for murder while most murderers go free.”

    Holy shit.

  4. So, uh, how do you get nominated for a Pulitzer, Radley? You deserve one.

  5. Fuck the Pulitzer. If Radley’s reporting makes a big enough difference to stop Haynes or Allgood from destroying more lives–and maybe even frees more people–then he deserves something far better than the prize that was also given to Walter Duranty.

  6. zing

    call it the Balko then

  7. Thank you Radley. As much as California pisses me off, you remind me to be thankful I live here and not that ass-licking hellhole of the South.

  8. Off topic:

    Campus shooting at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

    Campus secured. 16 victims transported to hospitals.

  9. Balko, i give you a ton of respect. This is what REAL reporting is, not the 5min BS they put on the local news and fecal matter on hotel glasses. This guy and all the swat antics should be all over the national news. It’s a disgrace that it isn’t.

  10. “Innocence Project Calls for Investigation Into Dr. Hayne”

    So has the Center for Good Things that People Want. Let’s see how far that gets us.

  11. Campus shooting at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

    Another mass shooting in a gun-free zone. What’s the phrase? Just Another Isolated Incident?

  12. When these guys finally go down, what kind of prize does Balko get to put on his mantle? A Pulitzer? Fine… but I’m thinking more along the lines of their ears or scalps.

    These guys really make me daydream violently murderous thoughts of harm against them.

  13. First, I echo the praise of others for Balko on these stories.

    That this guy is still not in prison, much less working for the state, much less being called to testify to send others to prison, is a truly disgusting example of the rampant corruption in the criminal justice system. It has to make you wonder how many others are out there like this, and how common an ME giving the DA what he needs to get his conviction is, and how many innocent people have been locked up because of these practices. With a prison population in the millions I would not be at all surprised if tens-of-thousands have been sent there by a state “justice” system much more concerned about the publicity of getting convictions than getting the right guy.

    As another comment said the other day, how anyone can read stories like this and still trust the government with the ultimate power of the death penalty is beyond me.

  14. I’ll just join in the chorus here. I was thinking just the other day how shameful news coverage is in the country. Late last night, one of the main articles on MSN.com was about how Justice Alito was pissed at The Sopranos for stereotyping Italian-Americans. That’s fucking news? What about the hugely important Supreme Court cases that have been decided in the last couple of years. You hardly ever see any real news like that.

    Thanks again, Radley, even though a lot of your articles and blurbs make me want to cry.

  15. Contacted for comment, Hayne responded, “I am board certified, and my work has been reviewed by impartial reviewers.”

    Yup, Dr. Hayne, your work blows.

  16. I lived in Mississippi from 1973 to 1996. And I never heard any controversy about this guy. And I should have. I was politically active and interested in this sort of thing for the last ten years I lived there. So, I have to move to Vermont and read about it from a journalist from DC? Dang disturbing. What’s the point of a free press if they don’t use that freedom to do some investigating? I hope the Clarion-ledger gets on this for real.

    Thanks Radley, for this and many other things if I’m ever in DC I’m going to buy you a beer.

  17. Well done Radley. Someone said earlier that this is real journalism, I couldn’t agree more.

  18. then he deserves something far better than the prize that was also given to Walter Duranty.

    how about the Nobel Peace Prize? After all, that bloated turd, Al Gore, got one.

  19. “When you don’t have facts, you have a tendency to engage in character assassination,” Hayne said.

    I find it difficult to believe he could have said that with a straight face.

  20. I wonder if Radley has the biggest ego ever, or is really just a humble guy doing a great job. I can accept either one as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing.

    Speaking od the NIU shooting yesterday, on the ABCnews.com comments there are lots of people with intelligent, thought-provoking statements like “no more gun” and “we need mandatory mental health screenings.” Fortunately, there are lots of us with rational arguments about the right to defend ourselves, and how Illinois is gun-grabber capital of the Midwest, and it ain’t working.

  21. Great research and reporting, Radley. Thanks for your work on this and the other issues on which you report.

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