Criminal Justice

The Bite-Marks Men

Mississippi's criminal forensics disaster


Between them, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks served more than 30 years in Parchman Penitentiary in Mississippi. Brewer was sentenced to death, Brooks to life without parole. The crimes for which each was convicted are remarkably similar: A female toddler was abducted from her home, raped, murdered, and abandoned in the woods. In each case, Mississippi District Attorney Forrest Allgood decided early on that the boyfriend of the girl's mother was the culprit. In each case, he asked Dr. Steven Hayne to perform the autopsy. And in each case, Dr. Hayne called in Dr. Michael West to perform some analysis of bite marks on the children. West claimed to have found bite marks that had been missed by other medical professionals and then testified in court that he could definitively match these marks to the teeth of the men Allgood suspected of committing the murders.

In each case, West was wrong. Two weeks ago, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced that police had arrested 51-year-old Albert Johnson for the toddlers' murders. Johnson's DNA matched that found at the scene in both crimes. And according to Hood, when confronted with the evidence, Johnson confessed to both crimes. Brewer and Brooks were released from prison last week. These may turn out to be the first in a string of exonerations we'll see coming out of Mississippi. For the last 20 years, the state's criminal autopsy system has been in disrepair. Nearly every institution in the state has failed to do anything about it.

Last November, I wrote an investigative feature for reason magazine about all of this, focusing in particular on the way in which Dr. Hayne has come to monopolize the state's autopsy business. I was astonished by what I found. Contrary to the story lines on shows such as CSI, forensics is far from an exact science. Even something seemingly as precise as DNA testing still requires careful preservation of evidence and is subject to human error and malfeasance. One key problem is that forensics labs often fall under the auspices of prosecutors. Even honest crime-lab workers, medical examiners, and other experts can be subtly influenced to make evidence conform to a prosecutor's wishes. In recent years, scandals have rocked crime labs across the country, even labs once considered world-class, such as the FBI's crime lab and the state lab in Virginia. In Mississippi, what's especially troubling is that state officials have had plenty of warning that something is wrong, and they've steadfastly refused to do anything about it.

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a doctor should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. Dr. Hayne has testified that he performs 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year. Sources I spoke with who have visited Hayne's practice say he and his assistants will frequently have multiple bodies open at once, sometimes smoking cigars and even eating sandwiches while moving from corpse to corpse. They prefer to work at night, adding to their macabre reputation.

Hayne isn't board-certified in forensic pathology, though he often testifies that he is. The only accepted certifying organization for forensic pathology is the American Board of Pathology. Hayne took that group's exam in the 1980s and failed it. Hayne's pal Dr. West is even worse. West has been subject to exposés by 60 Minutes, Time, and Newsweek. He once claimed he could definitively trace the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich left at the crime scene back to the defendant. He has compared his bite-mark virtuosity to Jesus Christ and Itzhak Perlman. And he claims to have invented a revolutionary system of identifying bite marks using yellow goggles and iridescent light that, conveniently, he says can't be photographed or duplicated.

Mississippi's system is set up in a way that increases the pressure on forensics experts to find what prosecutors want them to find. The state is one of several that elect county coroners to oversee death investigations. The office requires no medical training, only a high-school diploma, and it commonly goes to the owner of the local funeral home. If a coroner suspects a death may be due to criminal activity, he'll consult with the district attorney or sheriff, then send the body to a private-practice medical examiner for an autopsy. The problem here is that a medical examiner who returns unsatisfactory results to a prosecutor jeopardizes his chance of future referrals. Critics say Hayne has become the preferred medical examiner for Mississippi's coroners and district attorneys, because they can rely on him to deliver the diagnoses they're looking for.

Under state law, this whole process is supposed to be overseen by a board-certified state medical examiner. The last two people to hold that office, Dr. Lloyd White from 1988 to 1992 and Dr. Emily Ward from 1993 to 1995, were appalled at the way the state was handling death investigations. Both tried to implement reforms. And both were met with fiery resistance. Dr. Ward's tenure was particularly raucous. West (who at the time was the elected county coroner for Forrest County) circulated a petition signed by slightly more than half the state's coroners calling for her resignation. The legislature has largely refused to fund the office since. It's been vacant since 1995.

Meanwhile, as Hayne continues to do autopsies and testify, defense attorneys in a handful of cases have attempted to impeach him by citing my reporting, as well as the other criticism from Hayne's peers. The courts have dismissed these motions. They also often refuse even to give an indigent defendant funds to hire his own expert to review Hayne's work, leaving Hayne as the only medical expert to testify at trial.

That's what happened in the case of Jeffrey Havard, on death row in Parchman for killing his girlfriend's infant daughter. Before trial, Havard's lawyer asked the court for money to hire an outside expert, citing concerns about Hayne's credibility. The request was denied. After Havard's conviction, his legal team was able to get former Alabama State Medical Examiner Dr. Jim Lauridson to review Hayne's work. Lauridson found it lacking, to say the least. He told me last fall that Havard's case is "a travesty of justice." Yet in a ruling Kafka would not believe, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to even consider Lauridson's review of Hayne's autopsy. The review was new evidence, the court determined, and should have been introduced at trial.

After the Brewer and Brooks exonerations last week, the Innocence Project's Peter Neufeld called for an investigation into Hayne and West. Even before that investigation happens, Hayne and West should stop testifying or doing autopsies. The state also needs to review every case in which either of these two men has ever testified; such investigations have followed forensic scandals in West Virginia, Oklahoma City, Houston, and other places.

As those other scandals indicate, Mississippi certainly isn't the first state to have problems with its forensics system. The difference is that other jurisdictions have responded with thorough investigations and honest efforts to correct deficiencies and repair damage done. Over the years, Mississippi has had ample such opportunities, and state officials have done nothing. Perhaps more exonerations will force the state to change its bad ways. But thus far, there's no sign of that: In a recent article that ran in Jackson's Clarion-Ledger, Attorney General Hood defended Hayne's integrity and expertise, even as he was exonerating Brewer and Brooks, two men wrongly imprisoned due in part to Hayne's work.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at reason.

This article orginally appeared in Slate on February 20, 2008.

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  1. Wow. Nobody wants to touch this, huh? Or are the rest of you actually busy with something else.

  2. Radley,Every day in this country people are convicted on fake science.Breath machines have a known error rate of 20% either way and don’t test for alcohol.Just chemicals in the same group.Of course,we are told to hate drunk drivers and murders so most people could care less.Until they are the accused.

  3. I meant people accused.It seems accused and guilty are one in the same these days.

  4. One key problem is that forensics labs often fall under the auspices of prosecutors

    Forensic labs evolved gradually out of the work of police, medical examiners and hired consultants. It’s really only been in the last 15 years that we’ve seen the entire crime scene hyper-analysis take off. Unfortunately. organizationally, were still in the past. The labs still work as adjuncts of the police and prosecutors. That creates powerful institutional incentives to distort the science.

    Ideally, forensic scientist would work under a separate organization entirely. Prosecutors and defendants alike should have access to their services. I think they should be placed under the courts. Police, prosecutors and defendants could petition the courts to examine crime scenes for evidence and provide neutral findings.

  5. Michael Pack,

    Breath machines have a known error rate of 20% either way and don’t test for alcohol.Just chemicals in the same group.

    Um, no. Contemporary bearthalysers have a 98% accuracy in detecting ethyl alcohol under field conditions. They might be thrown off by the presence of other alcohols but since they are all highly poisonous, anyone who drank enough of them to score drunk on a bearthalysers test would have much bigger problems than a fraudulent DWI arrest i.e they wouldn’t live long enough to be booked.

    If the bearthalysers are as bad as you say you could easily prove it and make a fortune suing the manufactures for fraudulent claims.

  6. Shannon Love,no there not.They test for a group of chemicals that include alcohol.Exposure to gasoline,paint thinner or acid reflux are known to cause false positives.There are many other problems as well.As far as suing,the companies do not promise that type of accuracy and have went to court to keep their code secret.In Florida many cases were held up due to the company refusing to explain how it’s machine works.

  7. Michael Pack,

    This company advertises:

    This model is trusted by many professional organizations for employee screening, emergency room care, and roadside testing. The semiconductor sensor accuracy is ?0.01%BAC at 0.10% BAC and is DOT / NHTSA approved as an alcohol screening device. The AlcoHawk Pro is also 510(k) Certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

    Prove them wrong and make your fortune. I doubt you will because I am somewhat familar with this technology and it is widely used in many industrial sensor, scientific and medical technology.

    In Florida many cases were held up due to the company refusing to explain how it’s machine works.

    You don’t have to know how it works, you just need to prove it can’t accurately measure blood alcohol levels. Feed alcohol to a couple of dozen frat boys, then measure their blood alcohol levels by both breathalyzer and blood test. If the two don’t agree to within the required precision, you win.

  8. Mr/Ms Love:

    Type “breathalyser inaccuracy” into your favorite search engine and enjoy the reading. Or, if you’re too lazy to do that, try this site to start:

  9. I’m glad to see your work being presented to a wider audience, Radley; now get busy on a no-knock raid story for Salon.

  10. “He has compared his bite-mark virtuosity to Jesus Christ and Itzhak Perlman. And he claims to have invented a revolutionary system of identifying bite marks using yellow goggles and iridescent light that, conveniently, he says can’t be photographed or duplicated.”

    Sounds more like Joseph Smith virtuosity to me.

  11. the good news is Hayne has hit the big time, Hollywood! So no, people aren’t too busy.
    American Chronicle – Beverly Hills,CA,USA

  12. I did a search on “breathalyzer inaccuracy” and you were right. There was a ton of interesting reads and facts. Some people should carry a portable breathalyzer regardless because it gives them a ballpark figure of their BAC.

    1. The technology has definitely improved over the years.

      Our breathalyzer uses an FDA-registered fuel cell sensor, the same technology used by police and military devices.

  13. There is a lot of facts on breathalyzer which we doesn’t know. Have to do lot of investigation.


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