Civil Liberties

The Coroners Revolt

Mississippi coroners attempt to defy a ban on disgraced medical examiner Steven Hayne


One year ago, Mississippi officials appeared to have ended the career of Dr. Steven Hayne, the controversial medical examiner who had performed the vast majority of the state's autopsies for nearly two decades. Commissioner of Public Safety Steve Simpson announced last August that Hayne's name would be removed from the state's list of medical examiners approved to conduct autopsies in Mississippi.

Hayne had come under heavy criticism in the preceding months, including an October 2007 investigation and series of follow-up stories in Reason; the DNA exonerations of two men wrongly convicted of rape and murder due largely to testimony from Hayne and his frequent collaborator, the disgraced bite mark expert Dr. Michael West; and the Mississippi State Supreme Court's dismissal of Hayne's dubious testimony [PDF] in the murder trial of then-13-year-old Tyler Edmonds. Hayne, who is not board-certified in forensic pathology, had been performing 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year, several times the maximum number allowed by his field's certifying organization.

But now a sizable number of Mississippi's elected county coroners are plotting to bring Hayne back by redrawing law-enforcement boundaries to sidestep state law.

In Mississippi, autopsies are contracted out to private medical examiners. The state's 82 elected county coroners, usually with considerable input from the local district attorney, decide which doctors get the contracts, though by state law they have to choose from a list of doctors approved by the state Department of Public Safety. When Simpson took Hayne's name off of that list, he effectively terminated the doctor who had performed an estimated 80-90 percent of the state's autopsies over the last 20 years, a market share critics say Hayne won by serving as an unscrupulous rubber stamp for prosecutors eager to rack up convictions.

Earlier this year, Coroner Ricky Shivers of Yazoo County asked Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood—himself a former district attorney who has previously used Hayne's services—to issue an opinion on an old state statute allowing adjoining counties to form their own "districts" for the purposes of administering autopsies. Specifically, Shivers wanted to know if these new districts could chose their own medical examiner, one who was not on the state's pre-approved list. On June 26th, Hood's office released the ruling [PDF], written by Special Assistant Attorney General James Y. Dale: They could.

Shivers and two other Mississippi coroners told me that this was an orchestrated plan to get Hayne back into the local autopsy business. Just days after the opinion was issued, Hayne began faxing copies of it to sympathetic coroners around the state. He followed up with a packet of information, including a copy of the legal forms necessary to form these independent districts. Shivers says 11 coroners explicitly told him they've already taken steps to form such districts and re-hire Hayne, and around 20 others indicated they might to do the same. "I've already done the paper work for Yazoo County," Shivers says. "And it's already been approved by my board of supervisors."

Why such elaborate support for such a controversial doctor? To replace Hayne, the state recommended a Tennessee medical examination company, and many coroners don't like the change. "We aren't happy with the firm in Nashville," Shivers explains. When asked for a specific complaint, he says, "They're unresponsive. They won't allow anyone in the room while they're doing autopsies. They won't let any county officials talk to the medical examiner."

One of the main criticisms of Hayne over the years has been that there is too much consultation between the examiner and local district attorneys before he performs an autopsy. Dr. Lloyd White, who served as the state's medical examiner from 1989-1993, told me in 2007 that prosecutors would often tell him the diagnosis they needed before he even began the procedure. If his conclusions didn't satisfy them, they'd take the body to Hayne, who would then nearly always produce the opinions they were looking for. The National Association of Medical Examiners says forensic pathologist investigations should be conducted "cooperatively with, but independent from, law enforcement and prosecutors."

Attorney General Hood's boundary-redrawing decision was criticized by Commissioner of Public Safety Simpson. The ruling "is contradictory to a 1992 attorney general's opinion that says medical examiners must be approved by the Department of Public Safety," Simpson told me last week. "I had heard that Hayne was soliciting coroners to set up these, 'independent districts' I guess they're calling them. I don't know how they're going to reconcile the two opinions. And I would say to the coroners, this is not wise. Where are you going to do these autopsies? The won't be allowed to use the state lab."

According to one coroner I spoke with, Hayne plans to conduct autopsies at American Mortuary Services, a funeral home in Jackson. For most of his career, Hayne performed his autopsies not at the modern state lab in Jackson, but in the basement of the funeral home in Brandon, Mississippi owned by Jimmie Roberts, the Rankin County coroner.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, says he finds the coroners' move astonishing. "You have all of this energy and effort expended by a group motivated solely by money and selfish expedience to reinstate a status quo that was a national embarrassment, and left a trail of destruction that ruined people's lives," Carrington says. "And this, after you had so many people come together to try to bring some real reform to the system."

Simpson echoes Carrington's concerns. "To me, the most troubling thing about this is that these coroners and prosecutors want to use the services of a medical examiner who isn't board certified, who does way more autopsies than he should, and who wouldn't be subject to minimal standards and protocols. I would caution the district attorneys that whoever they get to do these autopsies, that person isn't going to be subject to any state law or oversight, and they're going to have to defend the results in court."

But as Shivers indicated, part of the problem for reformers is that Mississippi courts don't seem particularly concerned about Hayne. The state Supreme Court did throw out Hayne's testimony in the Edmonds case—the first time it had ever done so—but the same opinion made clear that the doctor could continue testifying in Mississippi courtrooms. In April of this year, the court gave Hayne a vote of confidence, refusing a murder appellant's challenge to Hayne's credentials and credibility.

This mounting revolt isn't the first time Mississippi coroners and prosecutors have rallied to Hayne's side. In 1995, the aforementioned bite mark specialist Michael West—at the time the elected coroner for Forrest County—circulated a petition (PDF) calling for the resignation of Dr. Emily Ward, Mississippi's last official state medical examiner. More than half the state's coroners signed on. The effort was a direct response to Dr. Ward's attempts to impose some standards on the state autopsy system, chiefly to rein in Hayne. The petition was successful. Dr. Ward resigned, and the state medical examiner position has remained vacant ever since. Over the last 20 years, in fact, a number of officials have tried to raise red flags about Hayne, including police chiefs, directors of the state crime lab, and medical examiners in surrounding states. Reaction from Mississippi officials has ranged from silence to hostility—hostility directed not at Hayne, but at his critics.

When told of the coroners' plan, State Rep. Bob Evans, who last year introduced legislation to fund and hire a new state medical examiner, says it was the first he'd heard of it. "This seems clearly to be an attempt at an end-around state law," Evans says. "I can't understand why any of the counties would go to this extent to keep someone in business doing autopsies who isn't board certified, and who's credibility has been as maligned, legitimately, as Dr. Hayne's has." Evans says that if the coroners' plan comes to fruition, he may seek new legislation to stop them. "It should certainly be easy enough to do away with that old law."

When forensics scandals have hit other states, public officials have generally expressed some embarrassment, followed by promises to both investigate the extent of the damage and to implement reforms to prevent similar incidents in the future. The dominant sentiment among Mississippi officials the last few years hasn't been embarrassment, but defiance. As more and more has come to light about the harm Hayne may have inflicted on the state's criminal and civil justice systems, the state has done only the minimum required to offset the mounting pressure. Now, coroners and prosecutors are trying to undo even that.

"This is really outrageous," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the New York Innocence Project. That organization, along with the Mississippi Innocence Project, worked with local attorneys to win last year's DNA exonerations, and has filed a complaint seeking to revoke Hayne's medical license. Hayne is now suing them for defamation. "Our work has shown that Hayne clearly contributed to at least two wrongful convictions, and that he's given misleading testimony in many others," Ferrero says. "You'd think that would raise concerns among coroners and prosecutors in Mississippi. They don't seem to care."

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason.