Canned Forensic Pathologist Steven Hayne Stands by His Work


The New York Times snags an interview with Steven T. Hayne, the suspiciously productive Mississippi pathologist whose work Radley Balko examined in a series of groundbreaking exposés for Reason, beginning in 2006. Hayne, who for two decades was responsible for the vast majority of forensic autopsies in Mississippi, performing them at an amazing rate of more than four every day of the year, was removed from the state's list of approved forensic pathologists in 2008 due to questions about his qualifications and methods raised by Balko, the Mississippi Innocence Project, and other critics. Now some inmates who were convicted based partly on Hayne's testimony are seeking new trials, although no systematic review of such cases is planned. James Lauridson, a former state medical examiner in Alabama (and one of Balko's sources), tells the Times, "There are hundreds of cases that have to be reconsidered." But Hayne insists his work was impeccable:

"I don't think I was treated fairly," he said last month at his house in a gated community overlooking the Ross Barnett Reservoir. "Is that the way you treat people after 20 years of working like a dog?"…

By his own count, he performed as many as 1,700 autopsies some years, in addition to having his own pathology practice. Dr. David Fowler, the chief medical examiner in Maryland and a former chairman of the standards committee for the National Association of Medical Examiners, called the number "beyond defensible."

Dr. Hayne said that state-appointed medical examiners simply did not have his motivation as a fee-based contractor, nor his work ethic. "How many autopsies could they do?" he said. "They could do one or 500, they get paid the same amount. Is there any incentive to do a heavy load?"

Hayne likewise stands by his amazing powers of forensic analysis, such as his purported ability to examine the exhumed body of a 3-year-old boy buried weeks before and conclude that he had been smothered by a large male hand, consistent with the suspect arrested by police (who was later convicted). Although Hayne has plenty of critics among pathologists, prosecutors still defend him:

"I'm sure there's a lot of people that don't like Hayne, but from a prosecutor's standpoint I don't know anybody who didn't like him," said John T. Kitchens, a former district attorney and circuit court judge. "He was always so helpful and useful to law enforcement."

No kidding. As Balko has argued, Hayne is an extreme example of a more general problem: People who perform autopsies should not see police and prosecutors as their customers, whom they are eager to please so they will get more of their business in the future. Just as prosecutors (theoretically) are supposed to seek justice, not just a conviction, medical examiners should be seeking the truth, even when it does not help the state's case. Too cozy a relationship with prosecutors makes that impossible.

For the details on why prosecutors liked Hayne so much, see Balko's 2007 feature story and his 2010 follow-up.