Criminal Justice

Mississippi Supreme Court Denies Jeffrey Havard

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Havard is on death row in Mississippi after being convicted of killing and sexually abusing his girlfriend's infant daughter. The sexual abuse charge was essential to Havard's murder conviction. The child died from a blow to the head. Havard says he dropped her while taking her out of the bathtub. The state argued he killed her. But because there were no witnesses or other evidence to support the murder charge, an odd twist in Mississippi law allowed them to argue that the sexual abuse was the underlying crime leading to the murder. I guess the thinking is that if he sexually assaulted her, he must have killed her, too.

I wrote a bit about Havard in my October reason piece on shady medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne. Hayne's testimony about finding evidence of sexual abuse was critical to Havard's conviction.

During his trial Havard asked the court for funding to hire his own expert to review Hayne's autopsy. The court turned him down, ruling that Dr. Hayne, with his thousands of appearances in Mississippi's courts was sufficient. After Havard's trial and conviction, Mississippi's post-conviction relief office was able to get former Alabama state medical examiner Dr. Jim Lauridson to review Hayne's work. Not surprisingly, Lauridson found it lacking.

Hayne and several hospital workers testified at trial that the baby's anus was dilated, indicating sexual abuse. Lauridson reviewed Hayne's autopsy report and photos, and concluded that the evidence didn't support Hayne's conclusion. The anus wasn't torn or lacerated, and Lauridson says it can often dilate naturally in such cases. Lauridson also noted that hospital staff had inserted a thermometer into the child's rectum in the frenzy to revive her. Tests showed no trace of Havard's DNA in or on the child.

On Havard's first appeal, the state supreme court refused to even consider Lauridson's testimony, arguing that it was new evidence that should have been introduced at trial—a nifty little Catch 22.

Last week, the court turned down his second appeal. The vote was 7-2. The opinion didn't address the recent revelations about Hayne's work load, allegations of bias and corruption, exonerations of defendants he has testified against in the past, or his lack of board certification.

It would be presumptive to say that Havard is innocent of killing the child. Because there were no witnesses, it's impossible to know. He had no history of child abuse or violent behavior. Unlike in the Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer cases, no DNA test is going to point to another killer. The question is whether the child's death was an accident or intentional.

But it is clear that there wasn't sufficient evidence to convict Havard, and that the trial judge was wrong to deny him funding to hire his own expert. In turning down Havard's latest appeal, Mississippi's Supreme Court has decided that even after all of the questions raised about Dr. Hayne's methods, practices, and credibility, they're still willing put their faith in him, even in a case where his testimony was critical to securing a death sentence, and even when that testimony has been challenged by a medical examiner who, unlike Hayne, has the respect of his peers, isn't seen as a hack for the state, and is actually board certified in forensic pathology