[Balko] The Coroners Revolt | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

[Balko] The Coroners Revolt

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One year ago, Mississippi officials appeared to have ended the career of Dr. Steven Hayne, the controversial medical examiner who had performed the vast majority of the state's autopsies for nearly two decades. Commissioner of Public Safety Steve Simpson announced last August that Hayne's name would be removed from the state's list of medical examiners approved to conduct autopsies in Mississippi.

Hayne had come under heavy criticism in the preceding months, including an October 2007 investigation and series of follow-up stories in Reason magazine; the DNA exonerations of two men wrongly convicted of rape and murder due largely to testimony from Hayne and his frequent collaborator, the disgraced bite mark expert Dr. Michael West; and the Mississippi State Supreme Court's dismissal of Hayne's dubious testimony in the murder trial of then-13-year-old Tyler Edmonds. Hayne, who is not board-certified in forensic pathology, had been performing 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year, several times the maximum number allowed by his field's certifying organization.

But now a sizable number of Mississippi's elected county coroners are plotting to bring Hayne back by redrawing law-enforcement boundaries to sidestep state law.

In Mississippi, autopsies are contracted out to private medical examiners. The state's 82 elected county coroners, usually with considerable input from the local district attorney, decide which doctors get the contracts, though by state law they have to choose from a list of doctors approved by the state Department of Public Safety. When Simpson took Hayne's name off of that list, he effectively terminated the doctor who had performed an estimated 80 percent to 90 percent of the state's autopsies over the last 20 years, a market share critics say Hayne won by serving as an unscrupulous rubber stamp for prosecutors eager to rack up convictions.

Earlier this year, Coroner Ricky Shivers of Yazoo County asked Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood—himself a former district attorney who has previously used Hayne's services—to issue an opinion on an old state statute allowing adjoining counties to form their own "districts" for the purposes of administering autopsies. Specifically, Shivers wanted to know if these new districts could chose their own medical examiner, one who was not on the state's pre-approved list. On June 26th, Hood's office released the ruling, written by Special Assistant Attorney General James Y. Dale: They could.

Shivers and two other Mississippi coroners told me that this was an orchestrated plan to get Hayne back into the local autopsy business. Just days after the opinion was issued, Hayne began faxing copies of it to sympathetic coroners around the state. He followed up with a packet of information, including a copy of the legal forms necessary to form these independent districts. Shivers says 11 coroners explicitly told him they've already taken steps to form such districts and re-hire Hayne, and around 20 others indicated they might to do the same. "I've already done the paper work for Yazoo County," Shivers says. "And it's already been approved by my board of supervisors."

Why such elaborate support for such a controversial doctor? To replace Hayne, the state recommended a Tennessee medical examination company, and many coroners don't like the change. "We aren't happy with the firm in Nashville," Shivers explains. When asked for a specific complaint, he says, "They're unresponsive. They won't allow anyone in the room while they're doing autopsies. They won't let any county officials talk to the medical examiner."

One of the main criticisms of Hayne over the years has been that there is too much consultation between the examiner and local district attorneys before he performs an autopsy. Dr. Lloyd White, who served as the state's medical examiner from 1989-1993, told me in 2007 that prosecutors would often tell him the diagnosis they needed before he even began the procedure. If his conclusions didn't satisfy them, they'd take the body to Hayne, who would then nearly always produce the opinions they were looking for. The National Association of Medical Examiners says forensic pathologist investigations should be conducted "cooperatively with, but independent from, law enforcement and prosecutors."

Commissioner of Public Safety Simpson criticized Attorney General Hood's boundary-redrawing decision. The ruling "is contradictory to a 1992 attorney general's opinion that says medical examiners must be approved by the Department of Public Safety," Simpson told me last week. "I had heard that Hayne was soliciting coroners to set up these, 'independent districts' I guess they're calling them. I don't know how they're going to reconcile the two opinions. And I would say to the coroners, this is not wise. Where are you going to do these autopsies? The won't be allowed to use the state lab."

According to one coroner I spoke with, Hayne plans to conduct autopsies at American Mortuary Services, a funeral home in Jackson. For most of his career, Hayne performed his autopsies not at the modern state lab in Jackson, but in the basement of a funeral home in Brandon, Mississippi owned by Jimmie Roberts, the Rankin County coroner.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, says he finds the coroners' move astonishing.

"You have all of this energy and effort expended by a group motivated solely by money and selfish expedience to reinstate a status quo that was a national embarrassment, and left a trail of destruction that ruined people's lives," Carrington says. "And this, after you had so many people come together to try to bring some real reform to the system."

Simpson echoes Carrington's concerns. "To me, the most troubling thing about this is that these coroners and prosecutors want to use the services of a medical examiner who isn't board certified, who does way more autopsies than he should, and who wouldn't be subject to minimal standards and protocols. I would caution the district attorneys that whoever they get to do these autopsies, that person isn't going to be subject to any state law or oversight, and they're going to have to defend the results in court."

But as Shivers indicated, part of the problem for reformers is that Mississippi courts don't seem particularly concerned about Hayne. The state Supreme Court did throw out Hayne's testimony in the Edmonds case—the first time it had ever done so—but the same opinion made clear that the doctor could continue testifying in Mississippi courtrooms. In April of this year, the court gave Hayne a vote of confidence, refusing a murder appellant's challenge to Hayne's credentials and credibility.

This mounting revolt isn't the first time Mississippi coroners and prosecutors have rallied to Hayne's side. In 1995, the aforementioned bite mark specialist Michael West—at the time the elected coroner for Forrest County—circulated a petition calling for the resignation of Dr. Emily Ward, Mississippi's last official state medical examiner. More than half the state's coroners signed on. The effort was a direct response to Dr. Ward's attempts to impose some standards on the state autopsy system, chiefly to rein in Hayne. The petition was successful. Dr. Ward resigned, and the state medical examiner position has remained vacant ever since. Over the last 20 years, in fact, a number of officials have tried to raise red flags about Hayne, including police chiefs, directors of the state crime lab, and medical examiners in surrounding states. Reaction from Mississippi officials has ranged from silence to hostility—hostility directed not at Hayne, but at his critics.

When told of the coroners' plan, State Rep. Bob Evans, who last year introduced legislation to fund and hire a new state medical examiner, says it was the first he'd heard of it.

"This seems clearly to be an attempt at an end-run around state law," Evans says. "I can't understand why any of the counties would go to this extent to keep someone in business doing autopsies who isn't board certified, and whose credibility has been as maligned, legitimately, as Dr. Hayne's has."

Evans says that if the coroners' plan comes to fruition, he may seek new legislation to stop them. "It should certainly be easy enough to do away with that old law."

When forensics scandals have hit other states, public officials have generally expressed some embarrassment, followed by promises to both investigate the extent of the damage and to implement reforms to prevent similar incidents in the future. The dominant sentiment among Mississippi officials the last few years hasn't been embarrassment, but defiance. As more and more has come to light about the harm Hayne may have inflicted on the state's criminal and civil justice systems, the state has done only the minimum required to offset the mounting pressure. Now, coroners and prosecutors are trying to undo even that.

"This is really outrageous," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for the New York Innocence Project. That organization, along with the Mississippi Innocence Project, worked with local attorneys to win last year's DNA exonerations, and has filed a complaint seeking to revoke Hayne's medical license. Hayne is now suing them for defamation. "Our work has shown that Hayne clearly contributed to at least two wrongful convictions, and that he's given misleading testimony in many others," Ferrero says. "You'd think that would raise concerns among coroners and prosecutors in Mississippi. They don't seem to care."

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine, where this story first appeared. See his columns every Tuesday in the JFP Daily.

Previous Comments

ID
150443
Comment

Outrageous is right. For anyone who can afford a decent attorney, they should be able to rip Hayne into a thousand tatters in a court case. But how many poor people are going to get railroaded by Hayne? It really is up to the legislature to end this fiasco, because the coroners obviously can't be trusted to govern themselves.

Author
Brian C Johnson
Date
2009-08-04T12:37:22-06:00
ID
150445
Comment

Anyone have the status of Hayne's court case against the Innocence Project? Like when it might actually get to court and likely get thrown out by the judge? As to the legislature and the coroners, could the DoJ be used to exert pressure here? If the coroners are teaming up like this to reinstate Hayne, it looks a lot like a case for RICO.

Author
Pilgrim
Date
2009-08-04T13:06:43-06:00
ID
150447
Comment

The JFP is grateful to Radley for being a friend of the paper and of the state. He's done incredible work in recent years about our state -- statewide work we don't have the resources to do. Thus, we are thrilled to give him a forum in the JFP every week, and to highlight his excellent investigative reporting. In a world of anonymous blogging masquerading as reporting, Radley is a great muckraker who knows what real reporting is--and isn't afraid to talk to anybody to get what he needs. We applaud him.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2009-08-04T13:37:31-06:00
ID
150503
Comment

I find this shocking. This sentence says it all: Dr. Lloyd White, who served as the state's medical examiner from 1989-1993, told me in 2007 that prosecutors would often tell him the diagnosis they needed before he even began the procedure. If his conclusions didn't satisfy them, they'd take the body to Hayne, who would then nearly always produce the opinions they were looking for. It makes a mockery of science and law (and at public expense!). Shameful.

Author
gwilly
Date
2009-08-05T07:41:53-06:00
ID
150538
Comment

Let's say it together - KICKBACKS

Author
lanier77
Date
2009-08-05T10:03:20-06:00
ID
150545
Comment

Seriously- Has anyone passed this to the local US Attorney or the civil rights folks over at DOJ? This smells to high heaven and looks like the feds need to take a look.

Author
Pilgrim
Date
2009-08-05T11:00:38-06:00
ID
150584
Comment

In another episode, Balko documented a case that involved a young girl who had died in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana and was autopsied at Dr. Haynes' base in Rankin County where there is video of evidence being falsified. http://www.reason.com/news/show/131527.html The Federales should really be paying attention to that one, especially since they crossed state lines!

Author
Macedonian
Date
2009-08-05T16:47:51-06:00
ID
150682
Comment

Yes Pilgrim! I had SAT in the AG's office, the FBI office and called the govenor, the state's reps and congressmen. THEY ALL PASS THE BUCK, sit on their sad SCARED behinds and do NOTHING. Here's my petition: http://www.gopetition.com/online/25939.html

Author
Gadget73156
Date
2009-08-07T20:29:53-06:00
ID
151119
Comment

Just to point out that the JFP is just a bit ahead of other local and national news outlets, WLBT ran a very similar story to this one. (http://www.wlbt.com/Global/story.asp?S=10967125) Balko also reports at theagitator.com that Anderson Cooper of CNN is covering a story about Mississippian Tyler Edmonds who spent six years in prison in part due to Hayne's flawed testimony. The AC360 blog at cnn.com says that there will be a report tonight on Tyler's story. (http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/08/21/after-wrongful-conviction-young-man-shares-10-things-ive-learned/) and (http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/2009/08/21/pathologists-work-raises-questions/) Funny, no one else is mentioning Balko or the JFP in their stories, though!

Author
Macedonian
Date
2009-08-21T14:31:09-06:00

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