Yesterday, I reported that the Mississippi State Senate had unanimously passed a bill that would require anyone hired to do an autopsy by one of the state's counties be certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. The bill was a reaction to the news that several Mississippi counties were attempting to resurrect an old state law to bring back controversial medical examiner Steven Hayne, who isn't board certified.
The bill now heads to the Mississippi House, where it look like it may face some opposition. After the bill passed the Senate, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who frequently used Hayne during his time as a district attorney, sent the following email to the state's representatives:
Please be advised House Bill 1456 amends Section 41-61-65 and allows the Department of Public Safety to appoint a Pathologist which must be qualified to perform post-mortem examinations. Further, this bill requires the Pathologist be an M.D. or D.O. who is certified in Forensic Pathology by the American Board of Pathology. This is an Innocence Project bill which threatens cases which involved Dr. Hayne. This bill has passed the Senate and is headed to the House of Representatives. Please contact your House Member and encourage him or her to defeat this bill. Our office is working diligently to stop this potentially harmful legislation.
Mississippi Attorney General
As I reported last summer, it was Hood's office that issued an opinion allowing Mississippi coroners to resurrect an old law that would allow them to circumvent the Mississippi Department of Public Safety's termination of Hayne in 2008.
Hood's email is striking for a couple of reasons. First, it's a pretty straightforward and unapologetic defense of Hayne, and an indication that so long as Hood is in office, there will be no serious review of old cases to find other potentially innocent people convicted by Hayne's testimony.
Second, certification in a medical specialty by the American Board is standard throughout the medical profession. It displays a basic level of competency. Most hospitals won't hire a doctor who hasn't been certified by the American Board. It's a pretty minimal requirement to ask of the doctors whose testimony will be used in criminal proceedings. In fact, under Mississippi law the state medical examiner is already required to be certified by the American Board. Since 1995, Hayne, the coroners, and the Mississippi legislature have gotten around the law by simply not hiring a state medical examiner. With no official state medical examiner, Hayne was then allowed to handle so many autopsies on a contractual basis that he effectively held the position in every way but having it printed on his business cards.
Third, Hood is fighting his state's Department of Public Safety and State Senate to bring back a doctor whose testimony has already led to the murder convictions of two innocent men, whose laughable testimony was thrown out of court (PDF) in a third murder case, and who has been roundly condemned by nearly every other medical examiner outside the state of Mississippi who is familiar with his work. (I've talked to at least 13.)
Finally, Hood's email is factually inaccurate. The bill would not address prior cases involving Hayne, as Hood implies by using the past tense of the word "involve." It merely prevents Hayne from doing any autopsies in the future. Either Hood hasn't actually read the bill, or he's trying to drum up opposition by deliberately exaggerating its scope, implying that it would reopen thousands of old cases. Mississippi really should look at all of those cases, but that isn't what this bill does.
Hood not only has a complete and utter lack of shame about the damage Hayne has already done to Mississippi's criminal justice system, he now seems determined to make sure Hayne can continue to do more.