Update on Mississippi's Dr. Steven Hayne


Last month, Jackson's Clarion-Ledger newspaper got hold of a letter the College of American Pathologists sent  to the embattled and now former Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne.  The letter informed Hayne that no action would be taken against him.  Despite Hayne's role in two wrongful convictions, his doing 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies per year by his own admission, and numerous criticisms of Hayne's sloppiness and questionable diagnoses by his own peers, the investigating panel told Hayne that no action would be taken…

…which would adversely affect your membership in the college because the committee concludes it lacks sufficient evidence on which to base a finding that you are deficient in moral character or professional competence or guilty of professional misconduct.

The Clarion-Ledger reports that the College initiated the investigation after the complaints from the Innocence Project about Hayne.  Curiously, Innocence Project spokesman Eric Ferrero tells me that no one at the College ever called anyone at his organization to discuss Hayne.  In fact, they never even requested copies of the actual exhibits in the Innocence Project's complaint against Hayne to the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure.

Ferraro also says that to his knowledge, no one at the College of American Pathologists bothered to speak with Hayne's many critics among his fellow forensic pathologists, either.  Forensic pathologists I've spoken with who have been critical of Hayne also say the same thing—no one from the College ever contacted them.

So the College found that there was "insufficient evidence" of impropriety to take action against Hayne, but seems to have neglected to talk to the people who actually possess or have seen evidence of Hayne's improprieties.  When I called the College to inquire about their investigation, I received a voicemail in return stating that the organization does not discuss its members, or any investigations of them.

The only thing we definitely know about the investigation is that a panel spent two hours in a closed-door hearing with Hayne and his attorney, a scenario the Innocence Project's Peter Neufeld described this way:

It's like a criminal defense lawyer being able to show up at trial and present all of the evidence and have none of the victims of the crime testify against you," Neufeld said. "If you only have the party you're investigating present and don't have any of the people conducting the investigation present to demonstrate his misconduct, I can't really take the findings of that hearing very seriously.

If Hayne and his 1,500 autopsies, funeral home-based practice, and long trail of fierce critics aren't enough to merit action, you wonder what a pathologist would have to do to receive an actual rebuke.

The problem of course is that Hayne and government officials in Mississippi will hail the College's investigation as redemption (Hayne and his attorney already have), and use it to further delay a thorough investigation to see just how much damage Hayne has done in the thousands of cases in which he has testified.  It will make it yet more difficult for the people he may have helped wrongly put in prison find relief.

Meanwhile, despite Hayne's effective termination as a Mississippi medical examiner last month, he will continue to testify for the state in the dozens more cases for which he has already performed the autopsies.  So there will be yet more Mississippi convictions based on Hayne's testimony.  When he announced Hayne's removal from the state's list of acceptable pathologists last month, Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said Hayne could stay on long enough to finish up his backlog of 400-500 autopsy reports—a staggering number that Simpson and Hayne's attorney blamed on late toxicology reports from the state's crime lab.

As it turns out, the backlog number is closer to 600, and only 15 percent of that number is due to tardy toxicology reports.  The rest are due to Hayne's own sloppiness.  To put that number into perspective, Hayne's backlog is more than twice the maximum number of autopsies the National Association of Medical Examiners recommends a doctor perform in an entire year.  This is nothing new.  I have autopsy reports Hayne completed as late as four months after the actual autopsy.

As I'll show in subsequent posts, it wasn't just Mississippi that dropped the ball on Hayne.  The various medical professional organizations that deal with forensic pathology have been getting complaints about Hayne going back more than a decade.  They never really confronted him.  The College of American Pathologists is merely the most recent.