Criminal Justice

More From Mississippi

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The national Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project have sent open records requests to every district attorney in the state of Mississippi. The request asks for a copy of every autopsy embattled medical examiner Steven Hayne has performed on their behalf at Mississippi's state crime lab facility in Jackson.

Though Hayne is not a state employee, he began conducting his marathon, all-night autopsy sessions at the state facility a few years ago. In the 15 or so years prior to that, he did all of his autopsies at a funeral home owned by Rankin County Coroner Jimmy Roberts. My sources say Hayne and Roberts had a falling out in roughly 2005, leading Hayne to move his operation to the state lab.

So while Mississippi has gone 14 years without an official state medical examiner (even though the position is mandated by state law), the state nevertheless allowed Hayne, a private doctor, to move into the official state lab to conduct autopsies, despite that the fact that he isn't board certified, and therefore is barred from holding the position that's supposed to be using that facility.

The way the open records request is phrased is interesting. The idea is that because Mississippi's state crime lab gets federal funding, there may be cause to call for a federal investigation if Hayne is doing fraudulent work at the federally-subsidized lab. You might actually be able to argue that the sheer number of autopsies he does on a daily basis alone amounts to fraud, or at least to a kind of de facto negligence.

Mississippi does have a notably stingy open records law, so it'll be interesting to see what kind of compliance the Innocence Project gets. While researching my article on Dr. Hayne, I had a very basic, unintrusive request denied on bogus privacy grounds. But perhaps the Innocence Project's high-profile will exert some extra public pressure and scrutiny on state officials to turn over the records.

The Innocence Project also has a nice summary of coverage of the Hayne scandal thus far here.

Finally—and most importantly!—my coverage of Hayne and bite mark quack Dr. Michael West made "News of the Weird" this week.

NEXT: Setting Up a Presidential Sting

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  1. Does the freedom of information act apply? Or is that only for records at the federal level?

  2. From the 11/07 Hayne article.

    Leroy Riddick, a state medical examiner in Alabama who has testified in opposition to Hayne, adds, “All of the prosecutors in Mississippi know that if you want to be sure you get the autopsy results you want, you take the body to Dr. Hayne.”

    This suggests a basic problem in the system, with its incentive and oversight structure. What exactly is the problem? Is it how expert witnesses are chosen and paid? Is it that jurors are chosen to be as uninformed and uncritical as possible and thus don’t recognize BS in court? This seems like the “real” question here: what is it about the legal system that makes crooks successful?

  3. Fascinating. Thanks for continuing to cover this story, Radley.

  4. glad to see you’re not letting up the pressure on this, balko.

    also: news of the weird? you have arrived!

  5. endless procedure but no real quality – i’m referring to the law that there was SUPPOSE to be a state medical examiner. No one will be demoted, fired, or prosecuted – and no judge will be impeached – for going along with this charade of an objective medical examiner.

  6. Now I’m no fancy big city lawyer but it seems to me that having a person fulfilling an official role in manner contradictory to law might invalidate convictions based on that person’s actions. After all, if someone fulfilled the role of a police officer without having gone through the formal legal processes of becoming a police officer we would invalidate the arrests and chains of evidence that that person might have done.

    Moreover, the state law requiring that the medical examiner have certain qualification was made in the first place so that juries could be confident that the person giving evidence had the minimum technical understanding to give the testimony. People expect medical examiners today to be forensic specialist just like they see on TV and they give the examiner’s testimony weight based on that assumption. If juries knew that the ME was in fact not qualified to hold his job then that would change how they would view his testimony.

    If Haynes starts becoming a liability to the prosecution on the basis of his lack of credentials then that alone could end his reign of error.

  7. Good to see this getting some traction. I suspect Mississippi is still the same after 150 years, they don’t care much for the thought of the feds nosing around. Thanks for the update.

  8. After all, if someone fulfilled the role of a police officer without having gone through the formal legal processes of becoming a police officer we would invalidate the arrests and chains of evidence that that person might have done.

    Huh?

  9. Chris Potter,

    If a person claimed to be a police officer but in fact never passed the necessary examination, took the appropriate or worked under the proper supervision, then the courts would toss out most of any evidence they brought to court. Even arrest they made or evidence they collected would be legally suspect.

    We should apply the same standards to the ME.

  10. Pinette wrote: Does the freedom of information act apply? Or is that only for records at the federal level?

    My understanding is that FOIA only applies to the feds. However, since the MS crime lab is federally funded it is possible that a court might determine that FOIA applies here (like the interstate commerce clause has been interpreted to give the feds jurisdiction over most anything). IANAL, and haven’t read the FOIA, but it really depends on how the act is written, and how the federal district court interprets the act. Any legal eagles care to comment?

    That Hayne was NOT the MS ME creates an interesting defense possibility — since he wasn’t a state employee that could insulate both Hayne and the state from action based on official misconduct. Brilliance masking as incompetence.

    Ultimately, I suspect that this will be resolved in the federal courts, given all the circumstances.

  11. If a person claimed to be a police officer but in fact never passed the necessary examination, took the appropriate or worked under the proper supervision, then the courts would toss out most of any evidence they brought to court. Even arrest they made or evidence they collected would be legally suspect.

    Shannon, I’m somewhat skeptical about your assertion. Can you reference case law or at least a credible news story supporting your position?

  12. Tonio,

    Can you reference case law or at least a credible news story supporting your position?

    Not off the top of my head. Such cases are rare because its rather obvious that the testimony of improperly empowered police would be useless. There was case in Texas back circa 1990 where a case was through out because there were irregularities in the election or installment of a county sheriff but I can’t remember the details.

  13. FOIA does not apply to private physicians, medical records, etc. These records are protected not only by sacred Hippocratic tradition, they are also protected by federal, state and local privacy laws (HIPAA, etc.)The fact that a medical procedure is payed for by public funds is irrelevant – and yes, that includes autopsy reports. Although there are legal ways to obtain a person’s medical records from a private physician, they all involve going through the courts and proving legal necessity above the objections of all other involved parties, one case at a time. “Fishing” expeditions into the medical records of private individuals cannot, and should not, be allowed.

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