Civil Liberties

Update in Mississippi: Titles Are Free!


Criminal defense attorney Matt Eichelberger has found an fascinating little document I hadn't yet seen in my reporting on Steven Hayne, Mississippi's controversial, fallen, and possibly rising again medical examiner.

To set up the document, a quick recap: By law, Mississippi is required to have an official state medical examiner. Hayne briefly held the position on an interim basis in the late 1980s, but was forced to step down when it was discovered that he wasn't board certified in forensic pathology. State law requires certification in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. Hayne took the certification exam in the mid-1980s, but failed it.

The state then hired a trio of reputable, qualified state examiners, all of whom eventually left the position in frustration after continually battling Hayne and his allies in the state's coroner and DA offices. The last of the three, Emily Ward, left in 1995. The position has remained vacant since, leaving Hayne to do 80 to 90 percent of the state's autopsies with no oversight.

Hayne is a doctor in private practice. Officially, he holds no position in Mississippi. Or at least he isn't supposed to. Yet Hayne has testified in court a number of times that he is Mississippi's "chief state pathologist," a position that has no basis in state law.

The document Eichelberger explains where Hayne got that title. It's a contract signed in 2006 between Hayne and the state's then Commissioner of Public Safety, George Phillips. The contract essentially creates the uncompensated, non-position of "chief state pathologist," and gives the title to Hayne. The position includes nearly all of the powers of the official state pathologist, save for the ability to make the rules other medical examiners are to follow while conducting official state autopsies. Given that Hayne was essentially the only game in town, and that he flagrantly violates the standards of his profession, Phillips probably found that portion of the law unnecessary.

To give Hayne the position outlined by state law would have required the legislature to eliminate the certification requirement, which probably would have attracted some negative attention. So Phillips just created a new position with most of the same powers and a similar title, and quietly bestowed it upon Hayne.

As Eichelberger points out, another interesting portion of the contract allows Hayne to conduct private autopsies at the modern, state-funded lab in Jackson at just $100 a pop. That worked out well for Hayne. For most of his career, he had been performing his all-night, marathon autopsy sessions in the basement of a funeral home owned by Rankin County Coroner Jimmie Roberts. Roberts and Hayne had a falling out in 2006. Some of my sources in Mississippi have wondered, and never been able to explain, how Hayne was able to move into the state facility despite not holding any official state position. Now we know.

It's really pretty incredible to continue to discover the extraordinary lengths to which Mississippi officials have gone over the years—and continue to go—to keep Hayne on the witness stand.

Archive of my prior reporting on Hayne here.