Criminal Justice

Mississippi Poised To Hire First State Medical Examiner in 15 Years

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The A.P. reports that after two years of searching, Mississippi is finally on the verge of hiring a new state medical examiner to oversee the state's broken autopsy system. The office has been vacant since 1995. Two years ago, Mississippi Commissioner of Public Safety Steve Simpson essentially fired Steven Hayne, the doctor who had done about 80 percent of Mississippi's autopsies for 20 years, and whom I've been investigating for several years. Since then, Mississippi has been contracting its autopsies to Forensic Medical, a private firm in Nashville, Tennessee.

I'll have more on all of this next week. But in the meantime, I have a few comments on the coverage of this latest news.

A.P. reporter Shelia Byrd writes:

Mississippi last had a medical examiner in 1995. The void had been filled by Hayne, who handled the majority of autopsies for the state's criminal investigations.

This makes it sound as if Hayne stepped up to do Mississippi a favor—a line often repeated by Hayne and his defenders. But the void was created intentionally. Hayne has monopolized Mississippi's autopsy referrals since the late 1980s. Every person who has held the state medical examiner position since Hayne moved to Mississippi has left the office in frustration after butting heads with Hayne and his supporters in the DA and coroners' offices. The last person to occupy the office, Emily Ward, resigned after a vicious PR campaign calling for her job, a campaign led by disgraced forensic bite mark specialist and Hayne sidekick Michael West, who at the time was also the Forest County coroner. Ward's mistake was to attempt to impose some standards on the 1,500-1,800 per year autopsy factory Hayne was running out of the basement of a Rankin County funeral home.

The point is, Hayne, the prosecutors, and the coroners wanted the position to remain vacant—or at the very least to be occupied by a patsy. Hayne wasn't some altruistic public servant who stepped up in a crisis. This was all by design, and it made Hayne quite wealthy.

The state's forensic investigation system came under scrutiny for Hayne's work. At the time, he didn't have American Board of Pathology certification in forensic pathology.

Hayne was never board-certified. He still isn't, though he is still testifying in Mississippi's courts, due to retrials of old cases and a two-year backlog of cases he had built up when he was fired. Last month I wrote about the case of Eddie Lee Howard, a man on death row in Mississippi who was convicted thanks to the testimony of Hayne and West. One interesting item I didn't include in the column: Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and District Attorney Forrest Allgood—both of whom have used the non-certified Hayne in countless cases over the last two decades—are trying to prevent the Innocence Project from using the same California DNA lab that has already proven that Allgood, Hayne, and West convicted two innocent men of murder. The reason for their objection? The lab isn't certified.

Some Mississippi DAs are still pining for Hayne. In a separate article in the Laurel Leader Call on the hiring of the medical new examiner, Jones County DA Tony Buckley defends Hayne's legacy:

"He was a great pathologist for us," Buckley said. "He was always available. You could always pick up the phone and get him. He worked hard to be in three different court rooms in three different days."

Buckley said that despite the qualification issue, Hayne was talented enough for the job.

"He performed over 20,000 autopsies," he said. "The man could tell what a person died from. The irony is Hayne was probably as qualified as anybody."

Buckley isn't the first DA to lament Hayne's absence. It's telling that what prosecutors loved about Hayne—that he would consult with them before doing autopsies, that he was a "reliable" witness, that he performed an ungodly number of autopsies while still finding time to testify several times per week—are some of the same reasons why he came under scrutiny and was eventually terminated.

There's no question that hiring a state medical examiner is a huge and important step forward for Mississippi, and though I've often disagreed with Commissioner Simpson on matters related to this story, he deserves credit for both firing and Hayne and now, it appears, for moving Mississippi toward filling the position.

But the big challenge for whoever takes the job will be retaining independence and resisting pressure from the state's good ol' boy of network of DAs and coroners. That pressure will come. And the challenge for Commissioner Simpson and whoever succeeds him will to defend the new hire when it does.