Questions Left for Mississippi Over Doctor’s Autopsies
By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON of The New York Times
Published: January 7, 2013
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JACKSON, Miss. — For a long time, if a body turned up in Mississippi it had a four-in-five chance of ending up in front of Dr. Steven T. Hayne.
Between the late 1980s and the late 2000s, Dr. Hayne had the field of forensic pathology in Mississippi almost to himself, performing thousands of autopsies and delivering his findings around the state as an expert witness in civil and criminal cases. For most of that time, Dr. Hayne performed about 1,700 autopsies annually, more than four for every day of the year and nearly seven times the maximum caseload recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners.
During the past several months, in courthouses around Mississippi, four new petitions have been quietly submitted on behalf of people in prison arguing that they were wrongfully convicted on the basis of Dr. Hayne’s testimony. Around 10 more are expected in the coming weeks, including three by inmates on death row.
The filings, based on new information obtained as part of a lawsuit settled last spring, charge that Dr. Hayne made “numerous misrepresentations” about his qualifications as a forensic pathologist. They say that he proposed theories in his testimony that lie far outside standard forensic science. And they suggest that Mississippi officials ignored these problems, instead supporting Dr. Hayne’s prolific business.
For many around the state, the Hayne era is considered to be over and any problems fixed. In 2008, amid growing controversy, the state severed ties with Dr. Hayne, who to this day insists that he was treated unfairly. Mississippi officials have since shown almost no inclination to review his past cases.
The recent lawsuits suggest that in only a limited number of cases did a verdict most likely hinge on Dr. Hayne’s testimony. But without any systematic review, it remains a question as to what that number may be.
“There are hundreds of cases that have to be reconsidered,” said Dr. James Lauridson, a former state medical examiner in Alabama, who provided an affidavit in one of the recently filed cases. Dr. Lauridson said Dr. Hayne was an extreme example of a familiar problem: a forensic analyst with inadequate training who was given far too much deference in the courts.
“After you do that long enough, your initially shaky opinions become way out of the mainstream,” Dr. Lauridson said. “That is what happened to him.”
Dr. Hayne was sidelined by state officials after his analyses — and those of one of his close collaborators — led to several murder convictions that were later overturned or thrown out. But he insists that his work has been intentionally distorted by critics.
“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?”
A physician and pathologist, Dr. Hayne, now 71, began performing autopsies in Mississippi in the late 1980s. He served briefly as interim state medical examiner though he was not, as state law required, board certified in forensic pathology. From 1989, when he left the interim post, to 2010, the office of medical examiner was unfilled for all but five years. Dr. Hayne, working as a private contractor, almost single-handedly picked up the slack.
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?”
That incentive is at the heart of the challenges filed on behalf of prisoners in recent weeks, most of them by the Mississippi Innocence Project. The cases in those filings are not clear cut, and in all of them there is circumstantial evidence suggesting guilt and innocence. But Dr. Hayne’s testimony was key.
In one case, Dr. Hayne performed an autopsy of a young boy and concluded he had been suffocated. Some weeks after the boy was buried, his 3-year-old brother told the police that he had been killed by his mother’s boyfriend. Officials exhumed the body, and Dr. Hayne had a cast made of the boy’s face. By comparing his initial notes of face wounds with the cast, Dr. Hayne testified, he found it probable that the boy had been suffocated by a large male hand. The boyfriend was convicted.
“I saw a very similar case like that on ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ ” said Dr. Andrew M. Baker, the president of the medical examiners’ association and chief medical examiner for Hennepin County, Minn. “I’ve never heard of it in real life.” Dr. Baker said not only was the technique unheard of but so was the ability to speculate from those sorts of wounds about hand size or gender.
Dr. Hayne suggested he was just being innovative. “Maybe we should have published,” he said upon being reminded of the case.
The Innocence Project has been trying to examine past cases in which Dr. Hayne’s testimony was pivotal, as state officials have shown no inclination to order a formal review. (Radley Balko, currently a reporter for The Huffington Post, has also investigated numerous cases.)
In 2009, Dr. Hayne sued the Innocence Project for defamation, and last spring the group paid him a $100,000 settlement. Innocence Project officials cited insurance reasons, though Dr. Hayne’s lawyer hailed it as a vindication.
But in preparing to combat the suit, lawyers for the Innocence Project said they uncovered new information. They said they found details about Dr. Hayne’s academic record and qualifications that significantly contradicted his own accounts, often given under oath.
They also found a 1992 proposal concerning Dr. Hayne drafted by a senior state official. Dr. Hayne was performing 80 percent of the state’s autopsies, the memo said, and would most likely continue to do so even if a new medical examiner were appointed. The state could save on salaries and office costs by giving Dr. Hayne the title, but letting him continue to charge $500 per autopsy as a private contractor.
Though the plan was shelved, and the office remained unfilled for most of the next 15 years, Dr. Hayne maintained his high-volume business and was eventually allowed to use the title of chief state pathologist.
Tucker Carrington, the director of the Mississippi Innocence Project and a professor at the University of Mississippi Law School, said this arrangement explained why Dr. Hayne was allowed to dominate the field for so long.
“What Hayne did was act as anyone would have predicted, which is not as an objective pathologist but someone who is in the marketplace,” Mr. Carrington said. “The state gave him this opportunity and gave him his blessing.”
That blessing was revoked in 2008, when, despite some opposition, Mississippi’s public safety commissioner removed Dr. Hayne from a list of approved forensic pathologists. The state hired a chief medical examiner in 2010.
But many coroners and district attorneys remain staunch defenders of Dr. Hayne and his work; for years, some point out, he was the only pathologist available.
“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. And he worked all the time.”
In a conversation that ranged from the fall of the Roman republic to the folly of the Vietnam War, Dr. Hayne remained unbowed. He said that his analyses never strayed outside the acceptable norms of science, that he testified without an agenda and that his findings were either being deliberately misinterpreted or unfairly conflated with the erroneous work of others.
“I think they were thorough, complete and withstood the test of time,” Dr. Hayne said of his reports.
Dr. Lloyd White, who was Mississippi’s state medical examiner from 1989 to 1992, said the problems concerning Dr. Hayne, while extreme, were rooted in the nature of the system in which he worked. Such problems, he said, are not unique to Mississippi, and are able to persist because scientific testimony is too often viewed with uncritical reverence and because the people affected by its misuse usually have little support or sympathy.
“I had a prosecutor one time tell me, ‘These guys may not have done it but they’re bad guys and they have to go to prison,’ ” Dr. White said. “The whole thing kind of rolls downhill from there. And in the interim you can’t help but wonder how many people ended up in prison who didn’t get a fair trial.”