Jackson's Clarion-Ledger Editorializes on MS Forensics


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.