Criminal Justice

Update in Mississippi


Last month, another case emerged involving embattled Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne.

Late last May, prosecutors in Madison County, Mississippi dropped all charges against 32-year-old Hattie Douglas, who had been charged with murdering her infant son in May 2006.  Douglas served a year in jail awaiting her trial.  She also lost custody of her other children, and wasn't permitted to visit with them.  She's still in the process of petitioning to get them back.

The charges against Douglas stem from a single toxicology test done on blood work taken from her son during his autopsy, which was performed by Dr. Hayne.  That test showed an astounding .4 blood-alcohol concentration.  Subsequent tests on other samples showed much lower concentrations—around .02, which would be consistent with Douglas' account of giving the child some cough medicine shortly before his death.  Hayne didn't note the additional tests in his autopsy report.  He took only the .4 results to local prosecutors, who then filed the murder charge.

A BAC of .4 would mean the child would have had to have ingested several ounces of pure alcohol.  Dr. Leroy Riddick, the former state medical examiner for Alabama, reviewed Hayne's autopsy at the request of Douglas' lawyer, Latrice Westbrooks.  Westbrooks asked for the review after seeing the stories about Hayne's questionable practices over the last year.  Riddick determined the alcohol poisoning diagnosis was absurd, and that the child likely died of interstitial pneumonia and a related viral heart infection.

Even if Hayne wasn't aware of the subsequent tests (which seems implausible), he should have ordered them anyway.  Dr. Riddick notes in his review that if an infant were to have a BAC of .4, the stench of alcohol should have been overwhelming.  No one—not the police, not emergency room doctors, not even Dr. Hayne in his autopsy—noted the smell of alcohol.  Hayne also found no other signs of alcohol poisoning during his autopsy, and with a BAC that high, such signs should have been abundant.  In fact, until the lab tests on the first blood sample came back, Madison County police weren't even treating the death as suspicious.

Hayne and Madison County officials are blaming the results on the lab, a Texas company called ExperTox.  ExperTox convincingly argues that they aren't to blame.  They were troubled enough by the first test that they asked for additional samples, and it was those subsequent tests that cleared Douglas.  ExperTox says one of the samples from Hayne's autopsy was so contaminated it was untestable.  My sources in Mississippi tell me another sample likely wasn't even taken from the child, as it didn't contain any of the medication the child was on at the time of his death.  The lab says the .4 test was likely the result of an improperly preserved sample.

A spokesman from ExperTox also told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that they stopped taking cases from Mississippi in 2006 due to contamination issues, explaining, "We didn't feel as comfortable with samples coming from that state as we did with other states."

That certainly jibes with what we already know of Hayne.

It isn't difficult to see how a man who does as many as 40 autopsies per week might run into some contamination issues.  Last year, former Mississippi Sheriff and Hayne critic J.D. Sanders told me of Hayne's practice: "It's a slaughterhouse.  They just line the bodies up.  I don't see you couldn't have cross-contamination issues." 

A former director of the Mississippi crime lab told me similar things about Hayne and his assistants: "They'd do everything they could to cut corners.  I reached a point where we collected all evidence at the scene, because we couldn't trust them to collect and preserve it properly.  I know for sure that there were frequently [test] tubes coming from Hayne that had the wrong names on them."

Mississippi's Innocence Project is now looking at 60-70 cases involving problematic testimony from Dr. Hayne.  A few district attorneys in the state are cooperating with the project's information requests.  Many aren't.

Meanwhile, Madison County continues to use Hayne for its criminal autopsies, as do most counties in Mississippi.

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  1. How hard can it possibly be to do something right? Autopsies are something that even government usually can handle, even if the anus is unremarkable.

  2. More of the same. Mississsippi justice is just denying reality.

    Keep at it, Radley. This Haynes credibility story is outrageous in so many ways.

  3. A spokesman from ExperTox also told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that they stopped taking cases from Mississippi in 2006 due to contamination issue, explaining, “We didn’t feel as comfortable with samples coming from that state as we did with other states.”

    Had drinks a few weeks ago with the Clarion-Ledger reporter covering this story. When she told me this bit, I was really happy that I’m not an angry drunk.

  4. From the story:

    Douglas, 32, was arrested in August 2006. She was in the Madison County Detention Center for a year before being released on bond Oct. 31.

    I don’t get it. A year? A fucking year in prison because she didn’t/couldn’t post bail? Was bail even offered? For the amount of time spent bitching about habeas corpus for “enemy combatants”, you’d think the US has no issue with it’s own citizens.

    A year in prison without trial. How common is this shit?

  5. A year in prison without trial. How common is this shit?

    Probably a lot more common than one might think. If you’ve got a court-appointed lawyer, one of the first things they try to get you to sign is the speedy trial waiver.

    A lot of defendants who know they’re going to prison will take full advantage of waiving their right to a speedy trial. Time in county jail counts as time served on their sentence, and two years in county jail beats the hell out of two years in state prison.

  6. Thanks, Radley. Hope you get that well-deserved Pulitzer some day.

  7. A year in prison without trial. How common is this shit?

    In some states, it takes that long (or longer) just to get the forensics results back, never mind the backlog of cases.

  8. From the article:

    Douglas’ children – ages 14, 13, 9, 8 and 6 – have been living with relatives in Canton since her arrest on Aug. 7, 2006.

    Well, that’s one bit of good news. They may technically be wards of the state, but at least their are being cared for.

    Here’s a big whopper of a lie though:

    “Our No. 1 priority is family preservation, whenever possible,” [Don Taylor, DHS executive director] said. “We provide the services – whatever is needed – to make the family whole.”

    HA HA! Yeah, right!

  9. Is everyone still OK with executing people convicted of child rape based on evidence from this guy?

  10. Radley, with you on the scent of the rotten Mississippi criminal justice system, and the feds unraveling the Scruggs civil mess, one day Mississippi might get a decent legal system. Passing through last week I heard a prediction that more heads were about to roll in the Scruggs case, including former politicians at the highest levels. I’m giddy hoping it’s true.

  11. I’m not Ok with executing people based on this guy’s evidence.

    I’m OK with the guy himself being executed, though!

  12. More ammunition for the proposition that government should not have a monopoly on the administration of justice. Just as I said last week or the wwek before, chaos is the inevitable result of the state having such a monopoly.

    Chaos? Yes. This case, like so many hundreds of thousands of others, reflects the lack of cohesion and order within our monopolized system of administering justice.

  13. I assume the ambiguity of “criminal autopsies” was intentional because that is certainly what Hayne’s autopsies are…

  14. To say, “Thank you, Radley,” is not nearly enough for your dogged determination in helping to expose Hayne and the rest of the “Little Rascals” in Mississippi.

    I have spoken to Devin Bennett and both of his elderly grandmothers this week on the phone. They are truly grateful for all you are doing. These ladies are very precious people who love their grandson and find comfort in knowing that you are fighting for justice.

    I hope to get to Mississippi soon myself and raise some good old southern HELL.

    If they take me, a 52 y/o disabled woman kicking and screaming all the way to jail, then so be it.

    At least I’ll be getting someone’s attention!

    I’ll be damned if I will sit idly by and let this injustice continue.

    Radley, you are truly a HERO to so many people.

  15. Thanks for the great work on this case Radley.

  16. Radley Balko is justice.

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