The Continuing Saga of Steven Hayne

The latest developments in the story of America's most industrious medical examiner


Last week the Mississippi Supreme Court granted a new trial to Cory Maye, who is serving a life sentence for shooting and killing Prentiss, Mississippi, police officer Ron Jones during a botched drug raid on Maye's apartment. One of the key prosecution witnesses in Maye's case was Steven Hayne, an overworked, ethically dubious medical examiner who performed the overwhelming majority of criminal autopsies in Mississippi for two decades, from the late 1980s until 2008. Although last week's ruling did not address Hayne's work, it presents an opportunity to consider recent developments in Mississippi's slow evolution toward a more competent death investigation system.

It was through Maye's case that I began reporting on Hayne, which resulted in a 2007 feature story in Reason. I found that he was performing a staggering 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies a year and had given dubious pro-prosecution testimony in several cases. Hayne (who over the years has never responded to my requests for an interview) had also given questionable testimony in civil cases, usually testifying for plaintiffs in medical malpractice and consumer lawsuits. In April 2009 I wrote another feature for Reason about the work Hayne and his sidekick, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, dentist Michael West, did in the Louisiana murder trial of Jimmie Duncan, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to death for sexually assaulting and murdering 2-year-old Haley Oliveaux, the daughter of his then-girlfriend. A video showed West repeatedly pushing a dental mold of Duncan's teeth into Oliveaux's skin, a practice other forensic experts say is at minimum malpractice and may amount to criminal evidence tampering.

In August 2008, Mississippi finally barred Hayne from doing any more autopsies in the state, although he still testifies in court, due to the massive backlog of cases in his care when he was terminated. Several of the state's coroners and prosecutors, along with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, mounted a brief campaign last year to reinstate Hayne, but that effort was defeated by the Mississippi legislature earlier this year. Hayne is pursuing a defamation suit against the Innocence Project based on claims the organization made about his workload and testimony in a complaint seeking to revoke his medical license. He is being sued himself by three people he helped convict who were later acquitted or exonerated.

Last month, in another step away from the period when Hayne dominated the state's criminal autopsy system, Mississippi moved closer to hiring its first official state medical examiner since 1995. The last two people to hold the position, Emily Ward and Lloyd White, were chased out of office by Hayne and his allies in Mississippi's county coroner and district attorney offices after they tried to impose some standards on the state's death investigation system. Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson offered the job to Douglas Posey, a medical examiner who currently works for the Georgia State Bureau of Investigation. When I interviewed Posey about Hayne in 2007, he said he had tried to set up a forensic pathology practice in Mississippi in the early 1990s but was told by the Washington County coroner that no one was allowed to perform autopsies in Mississippi without first getting permission from Hayne. Hayne held no official position at the time but by then had essentially monopolized the state's autopsy referrals.

Simpson told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger he would ultimately like to hire five full-time medical examiners and eight to 10 assistants. That would represent a huge improvement in the quality of the state's death investigations. Unfortunately, Simpson will now have to begin his search again. Posey backed out of the job late last week, citing health issues. When Simpson does finally fill the position, the ultimate test will be how the new state medical examiner and his staff hold up—and whether Simpson and the Mississippi legislature support them—when they inevitably clash with county coroners and prosecutors who are more interested in foregone conclusions than in independent scientific assessments.

While Simpson tries to raise the professionalism of Mississippi's death investigations, the legal system is still dealing with fallout from the Hayne era. Hayne failed to appear at a post-conviction hearing last May in the Jimmie Duncan case, despite a subpoena instructing him to come. The hearing did not specifically address the video I wrote about in April 2009, but it did address two other portions of Hayne's trial testimony. First, Hayne testified that he found pickles, onions, and ketchup in Haley Oliveaux's stomach. It was an odd assortment of items to find in a child who died in mid-morning. More important, it contradicted Duncan's timeline for the day Oliveaux died. Duncan testified that he had fed her oatmeal for breakfast. Duncan's attorneys suspect Hayne may have mixed Oliveaux's stomach contents up with those of someone else he autopsied that day, a not-unreasonable suspicion, given the huge volume of autopsies Hayne was churning out at the time. I've spoken to toxicology and crime lab technicians who say they frequently received test tubes from Hayne with the wrong names printed on them. So Duncan's attorneys asked Hayne for reports on other autopsies he conducted that day. Hayne first told them he doesn't honor such requests from out of state, a strange response given that he went out of state to testify in the case in the first place. He then told them he had sent all of those reports to the crime lab in Jackson. When the crime lab told Duncan's attorneys that wasn't true, Hayne finally said reports on any other autopsies he did that day had been destroyed.

The other issue addressed at the hearing concerns tissue slides of Oliveaux's rectum. Hayne testified at trial that the slides showed Oliveaux had been sexually abused shortly before her death. But Hayne was the only one to see the slides. When Duncan's attorneys asked him to send the slides for evaluation by their own specialist, Hayne said he no longer had them. He said he had sent them to George McCormick, a Louisiana medical examiner retained by Duncan during his appeal who has since died. But even if the slides are gone, Hayne should still have retained the paraffin blocks from which duplicate slides could be made. Those blocks are a critical piece of evidence in a homicide case. Hayne says he no longer has those either. Kathy Kelly, head of Louisiana's Capital Post Conviction Office, which is representing Duncan in his bid for a new trial, says she will seek a contempt order if Hayne fails to show up for the next hearing in the case.

Meanwhile, now that Hayne can no longer do autopsies for prosecutors in Mississippi, he is entertaining offers to testify for defendants. Earlier this year he sent a letter (PDF) to Mississippi criminal defense attorneys announcing his availability as an expert witness. The letter states that Hayne is "board-certified" in forensic pathology—an assertion that, as I've reported before, is not true, at least not as nearly every other forensic pathologist understands the term. When a local TV station asked Hayne in 2007 to name the organization that certified him, he said he couldn't remember.

Another Hayne credential, his membership in the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), is no longer operative, since he resigned from the group last year. According to a source who asked not to be named because NAME investigations are not public information, Hayne was given the option to resign instead of standing for an ethics inquiry. NAME Chairman John Howard confirms that Hayne resigned in 2009 but declines to discuss the circumstances or precise timing of the resignation.

In perhaps the most bizarre development, Tennessee medical examiner Bruce Levy was indicted last March for felony marijuana possession. Levy was a state medical examiner for Tennessee at the time. Levy's firm, Nashville-based Forensic Medical, was hired by Simpson in 2008, shortly after Simpson terminated Hayne, to handle the bulk of the state's autopsies while Simpson looked for someone to fill the state medical examiner position. Levy was arrested at a hotel in Jackson, where he was staying while conducting autopsies, the night before the Mississippi legislature was set to vote on a bill to head off the effort by Attorney General Hood and many of the state's coroners and prosecutors to bring Hayne back—an effort driven, they said, by their dissatisfaction with Levy's firm. (The bill still passed.) Despite the timing of Levy's arrest (and at least one prior example of a Hayne critic who was hit with dubious criminal charges), the consensus among my sources in Nashville, in Mississippi, and among Levy's medical-examiner colleagues is that his arrest was legitimate. He has since entered a treatment program as part of a guilty plea.

In another strange development that has puzzled many medical examiners familiar with Hayne and his history in Mississippi, Hayne has hired James Lauridson, the former state medical examiner for Alabama, as a witness in his defamation suit against the Innocence Project. In an affidavit and report (PDF) filed on Hayne's behalf, Lauridson vouches for Hayne's ethics and professionalism, characterizing his testimony against Hayne in prior cases as mere collegial disagreements between two expert witnesses. He says forensic pathology can give rise to contentious debate due to the adversarial nature of the legal system.

The position Lauridson takes in the affidavt is odd, because he has been quite critical of Hayne's testimony in numerous prior cases, including two in which Hayne's testimony helped win murder convictions of men who were later exonerated by DNA testing. Lauridson's affidavit also does not jibe with my own conversations with him. In an interview for my 2007 article about Hayne, Lauridson said of Hayne's influence: "It's just really bizarre in Mississippi. The ultimate good ol' boy network. Prosecutors love a medical examiner that helps them get convictions. But it's not supposed to be about how many people you can convict." Lauridson is also an expert in two ongoing Mississippi death penalty cases in which he is directly challenging Hayne's testimony—the cases of Jeffrey Havard and Devin Bennett. Lauridson wouldn't comment to me on the specifics of those cases, but he did describe the Havard case as "a miscarriage of justice."

Two medical examiners I spoke to who know Laurdison personally said they were surprised, if not shocked, to hear he had been hired by Hayne. Reached by phone last week, Lauridson said of the affidavit, "My role is to look at Hayne's testimony in specific cases and evaluate its merit. That's all I'm doing."

But Lauridson's affidavit is broader than that. He vouches for Hayne's intelligence and experience, and he mimics Hayne's strategy of obfuscation when it comes to Hayne's lack of certification. Lauridson writes, for example, that "Hayne has never to my knowledge claimed board certification by the American Board of Pathology." This is true. (Hayne took the American Board of Pathology's exam in the 1980s and failed it.) But Hayne does frequently claim to be board certified in forensic pathology. When challenged on this point over the years, he has cited numerous organizations that either no longer exist, have never existed, or are considered to be of dubious merit by other medical examiners (a couple of which also have names suspiciously similar to the American Board of Pathology). So while he isn't lying outright, he knows he is giving a false impression. When I ask Lauridson about this, he acknowledges Hayne's slipperiness on certification but says it's up to defense attorneys and judges to ferret these issues out.

Lauridson's report in support of Hayne's lawsuit is likely to bolster the arguments made by Hayne and his defenders, who dismiss his critics as envious colleagues, partisan death penalty opponents, and disgruntled litigation opponents. They say his sometimes outrageous testimony, such as his claim (PDF) that he can tell by bullet wounds that two people held the gun that fired the bullets, is not the work of an unscrupulous expert for hire but just another scientific opinion, as credible as the opinions of those who disagree with him.

Lauridson dismisses the concern that supporting Hayne in his lawsuit will reduce the odds of an official investigation into the damage he has done to Mississippi's justice system, including a comprehensive review of the cases in which he has testified. While acknowledging that Hayne has given bad testimony in prior cases, Laurdison denies that he is making it more difficult to uncover Hayne's mistakes. "There's nothing in my affidavit that isn't true," he says.

Despite the progress Mississippi has made during the last few years, and despite the commendable job Commissioner Simpson has done attempting to staff the medical examiner's office and modernize the state's death investigation system, Hayne will continue testifying in Mississippi courts for years to come. He will finish up his backlog and testify in any retrials of cases in which he has already participated. (If Cory Maye's case proceeds to retrial, Hayne will almost certainly testify again.) He is also free to testify in civil cases and for any defense attorney willing to hire him—which might be a good strategic move, since any prosecutor who relied on Hayne for the bulk of his career is unlikely to challenge his credibility or credentials in court. Meanwhile, in addition to Duncan's death penalty case in Louisiana, there are at least three people on death row in Mississippi (Havard, Bennett, and Eddie Lee Howard) whose convictions were based largely on testimony from Hayne that has since been called into question by other forensic pathologists. There are also tens of thousands of noncapital cases to review.

The saga isn't over.

Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.