Former Mississippi Official Calls for Overhaul of Autopsy System


This past weekend in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, former Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Louisa Dixon wrote a lengthy piece calling for the full funding of the state's medical examiner position, including a staff and budget significant enough for the office to handle the bulk of the state's autopsies. She also says the state medical examiner should report to an independent oversight board to prevent whoever holds the position and his subordinates from being unduly influenced or coerced by the state's district attorneys.

Dixon's op-ed is spot-on. One thing I would add, though: Mississippi is in the position it's in now not by benign neglect or accident, but by design. Where any sensible person would look at the current system down there and see a disaster, the state's coroners, district attorneys, and to a large extent its plaintiff's attorneys have long seen and utilized a system that efficiently meets their needs. The DAs get autopsy results that help them win convictions. The trial lawyers get results that help them win malpractice and negligence suits. And the coroners get the benefits that come with making both the DAs and trial lawyers happy (use your imagination as to what those benefits might be).

The state legislature has benefited by not having to fund a modern state medical examiner's office and staff. All the money paid for autopsies in Mississippi comes from the individual counties, not the state treasury.

Indeed, the only people who don't benefit are the relatively powerless—the wrongfully accused, particularly those who can't afford to hire their own expert to rebut Dr. Hayne at trial; the families of the deceased whose bodies are sent through Dr. Hayne's assembly-line autopsy practice; the families of those whose deaths may have been caused by criminal acts, but that for whatever reason Dr. Hayne determined died by "natural causes" or suicide; and the families of crime victims for which Dr. Hayne and an overzealous DA fingered the wrong man.

Such is why the last two people to hold the office of state medical examiner—Dr. Emily Ward and Dr. Lloyd White—were run out of town when they tried to implement reform. In fact, everyone who has held that office has encountered resistance, going back even before Dr. Hayne started practicing in Mississippi. The very first state medical examiner in Mississippi was a woman named Faye Spruill, who took office in 1979. Like those who would take office after her, Spruill encountered problems with the coroners and DAs, as well as with the legislature, which wouldn't give her office enough money to keep up with the pace of autopsies that needed to be completed.

Spruill is advanced in years now, and when I spoke with her last year she couldn't remember much at all about her time in office. But Dr. White, who would hold the position several years later, told me he sat in on state legislature hearings in the early 1980s in which Spruill threatened to resign if her office wasn't given a proper budget. White says that after the hearing, a state senator approached him and expressed his outrage that a woman would show up at a hearing and try to demand that lawmakers give her more money. According to White, the senator said, "Well I'll tell you what we did, we just cut her tits off. She won't be coming here trying to tell us what to do anymore." Sure enough, Spruill resigned from the office soon after.

Go back and peruse area newspaper articles from the 1990s during the tenures of White and Ward, and you'll find repeated references to the tumultuous history of the office. Mississippi's coroners and DAs have always wanted a compliant, pliable medical examiner to do autopsies for them, and when the state medical examiner has been an obstacle to that arrangement, they've rebelled, culminating in perhaps the most absurd example, Dr. Michael West and his fellow coroners' childish petition calling for the resignation of the state's last official medical examiner, Dr. Emily Ward. One of their chief complaints was that Dr. Ward would sometimes testify for defendants when her autopsy results differed from what a prosecutor wanted to hear. West also called Ward "incompetent," which given what we now know about Dr. West, is laughable.

Louisa Dixon's recommendations are excellent, and would go a long way toward adding some accountability to the autopsy system there (if the state wanted to be a pioneer, its lawmakers might even look to some of the suggestions reason contributor Roger Koppl has made).

But more fundamentally, the state needs to rein in its coroners and prosecutors, who over the years have accumulated way too much power. Dr. Hayne and Dr. West are mere symptoms. There were other pushover "experts" before them, and unless the state's criminal justice system becomes more transparent and accountable, there will be others after them.