Criminal Justice

Jackson's Clarion-Ledger Editorializes on MS Forensics

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Jackson's Gannett paper offers up a milquetoast criticism of Mississippi's forensics system today. The Clarion-Ledger's reporting on Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne has been woefully inadequate, both over the years, and in the way the paper has responded to the Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks exonerations. As I was reporting my story on Hayne that ran last fall, I started wondering more and more why a paper like the Clarion-Ledger hadn't written this story years ago. And I'm still perplexed as to why the paper never followed up on my reporting. One reporter contacted me in the first days after my articles ran, but never called back, and her article never ran. Odd, given that all of this is transpiring in the Clarion-Ledger's own backyard.

For now, I'll just call attention to this portion:

The state medical examiner position has been vacant since 1995.

The lab is asking $9 million for fiscal 2009—up nearly $1 million; the medical examiner vacancy has led to one pathologist responsible for more than 1,500 autopsies annually—an impossible standard.

The casual reader might conclude from that passage that Hayne's prolific output is the result of him being overburdened by an underfunded crime lab—that he'd welcome a lightening of his caseload. That's not really what has what happened.

There are two issues, here. Yes, the state does need a state medical examiner, and both the crime lab and the medical examiner's office need significantly more funding. An actual qualified state medical examiner would also go a long way toward cleaning things up down there, provided he had the support of the legislature, executive, and could order the state's coroners and prosecutors to comply with his reforms (none of which has been the case in the past).

But even under the current system, coroners and district attorneys are free to shop autopsies to any medical examiner in the state who wants to do them. It isn't as if Hayne is the only medical examiner in the state (though many have left after realizing there wasn't much work for them there). He's popular because the people who conduct death investigations find him reliable. Not necessarily accurate, mind you. Just reliable. He in turn courts them. His workload isn't by accident. He's worked for it. In fact, I've talked to former medical examiners in the state who've been chased out when they began to threaten Hayne's business. One, who now works in Georgia, told me one coroner told him flat-out that he wasn't allowed to do autopsies in Mississippi unless he first obtained Hayne's permission—odd, given that Hayne held no official state office at the time.

This editorial is a decent start, I guess. But the Clarion-Ledger is merely one of just several Mississippi instituitons to drop the ball, here, allowing the likes of Dr. Hayne and Dr. West to flourish.

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  1. “…hadn’t the writen this story…”

    WTF?

  2. also, ‘casual leader’ should be ‘casual reader.’

    so, any theories on why this paper and others go so easy on these crooks? actual “reporters in politicians’ pockets” corruption? i would be willing to bet that it is just a lack of interest, the usual unquestioning “the authorities know best” attitude one finds so prevalent, especially at newspapers (NJ readers: The Trenton Times falls into this category, agree or disagree?), which is ironic given the supposed function of journalists. Incurious reporters? naaah.

  3. [Insert joke about the south and here]

  4. Its conclusion: “The use of capital punishment requires these steps to ensure the state gets it right.” A (small) step in the right direction, indeed.

  5. oops but i meant to add, even if they dont have capital punishment, it’s still worth it to fund crime labs and the ME position and proper oversight and transparency required to improve the prevalance of fair treatment for the accused.

  6. Thanks for the heads-up on typos.

    Fixed.

  7. I started wondering more and more why a paper like the Clarion-Ledger hadn’t written this story years ago

    basically the same reason you never . . . well, you know.

  8. Some journalists honestly seem to think that their job is to do PR for the powers that be. “We must support the police, else who will protect us from criminals?”

  9. Jackson’s Gannett paper offers up a milquetoast criticism

    I sincerely object to the sudden, increased use of the word *milquetoast* in H&R postings.

    I mean this is like the 3rd in a week. Was it like, word of the day in people’s inbox or something?

    I also object because it reminds me of a character in Bloom County I havent thought about in 20+ years.

  10. I sincerely object to the sudden, increased use of the word *milquetoast* in H&R postings.

    I also heard it on last week’s episode of Nip/Tuck.

  11. I also object because it reminds me of a character in Bloom County I havent thought about in 20+ years.

    Ah yes, the cucaracha.

    In my experience, I have been shocked by nearly every organization I have been able to see the inner workings of. Shocked by the unbelievable incompetence, stupidity, laziness, patronage, waste, and so on. In very small, tight companies this was very limited but still happened. The bigger the company, the worse it got, and government is of course the worst.

    My guess is that newspapers are just the same, and the reason this paper didn’t pick up on this story was that most reporters are lazy, incompetent, stupid hacks who want stories dropped in their laps.

  12. “Odd, given that all of this is transpiring in the Clarion-Ledger’s own backyard.”

    It’s almost as if they were treating you like a carpet-bagger.

    You know how some people love to revel in their red state, flyover bona fides? Well the deep South has been trading in that currency since 1865.

    Yep, them’s carpet-baggers… First they came to free the slaves, then they came for reconstruction. Then they came to integrate the schools and register voters, now they want to remake the medical examiner’s office…

    I bet there’s some of that dynamic goin’ on.

  13. Some journalists honestly seem to think that their job is to do PR for the powers that be.

    They don’t have to think anything. It’s “structural.”

    Journalism’s measure of its own seriousness is the degree to which its subject is government, so news is “PR for the powers that be.”

    Few journalists resist going native and becoming functionally parts of the state, and those who do are soon out of a job for lack of story-generating contact with the “newsmakers” it’s a journalist’s job to paraphrase and be guided by.

  14. Episiarch,

    maybe the people at those big organizations would be better workers if they weren’t on the internet.. looking at blogs… making comments.. responding to the responses to their comments…
    back to work for a few.

  15. sv, I would be chagrined if I wasn’t such an excellent worker. Besides, I’ve already worked 9.5 hours.

  16. Few journalists resist going native and becoming functionally parts of the state, and those who do are soon out of a job for lack of story-generating contact with the “newsmakers” it’s a journalist’s job to paraphrase and be guided by.

    No, you don’t have to be friends with the government to get stories. All you need is credibility with the people who have complaints against the government.

  17. and it’s not just about innocent people being executed based on a broken system, which is bad enough, it is about poor, innocent children spending the rest of their life in prison from age 15. I know of a few in Mississippi. Dr. Hayne is responsible for that reprehensible outcome also; children sentenced to die in prison based on lies, deceit, greed, power, & the good ole boy system is business as usual in Mississippi. How do people live with themselves?

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