Criminal Justice

Update in Mississippi

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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.