Civil Liberties

Mississippi Fires Medical Examiner Steven Hayne


In our November 2007 issue, reason exposed some significant problems with Mississippi's forensic system. The article focused on Steven Hayne, the doctor who for two decades has conducted the vast majority of Mississippi's autopsies. (Hayne says he performs 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies per year, an impossibly high number.) reason interviewed medical examiners across the country who reviewed Hayne's work and found it sloppy and incompetent, and who cited several examples where Hayne's trial testimony may have put innocent men in prison.

Drawing on reason's reporting, the criminal justice advocacy organization the Innocence Project called on Mississippi to bar Hayne from doing any more autopsies in the state. On August 5, the state finally severed its ties with Hayne. Commissioner of Public Safety Stephen Simpson announced that Hayne would be removed from the state's list of approved medical examiners and that Mississippi would begin contracting its criminal autopsies to a private firm in Nashville.

The case against Hayne was strengthened by the February release of two men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, from the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman. Brewer and Brooks were both accused of raping and killing young girls in the early 1990s in similar crimes that occurred within miles of each other. Brooks was sentenced to life in prison, Brewer to death. Hayne performed the autopsy in both cases, and in both cases Hayne and the disgraced forensic odontologist Michael West identified bite marks on the bodies of the victims that they say implicated the defendants. DNA testing later showed both men were innocent. Also in February, police arrested Albert Johnson, who confessed to both crimes.

Even in firing Hayne, Simpson tempered his press conference with praise for the doctor. Attorney General Jim Hood, who frequently used Hayne when he was a district attorney, also vigorously defended him in the local press. Simpson said his agency has no intention of reviewing any cases where Hayne has testified. He had "no comment" on the persistent allegations that Hayne has repeatedly given false and improper testimony during his 20-year reign. Hayne was to remain on contract with the state for an additional 90 days to complete a backlog of 400 to 500 autopsy reports.

The New York and Mississippi Innocence Projects say they're looking at more than 200 cases where Hayne gave improper testimony and may have helped convict an innocent person.