Pathologist’s credibility on line: Expert admits he failed to compete certification exam

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Written by Jerry Mitchell of The Clarion Ledger

November 6, 2012

The testimony of pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne has helped lead to the convictions of hundreds of Mississippians over the past decade and a half.

While the quality of his work previously has been called into question, his credibility is now on the line.

The latest salvo comes in a post-conviction relief motion filed in Monroe County Circuit Court by attorneys for former Mississippi State University professor David Parvin, convicted last year in the 2007 shooting death of his wife.

Hayne now acknowledges a previous statement he made in connection with his credentials isn’t true, according to the documents filed by Parvin’s attorneys on appeal, James L. Robertson of Jackson, Jim Waide of Tupelo and Tucker Carrington, who heads the Mississippi Innocence Project.

Hayne had testified under oath in a 2004 trial and reiterated to The Clarion-Ledger in 2008 that he walked out of an 1989 exam for certification in forensic pathology because of a stupid question about ranking in order what colors are associated with funerals.

In a recent deposition by the Innocence Project, Hayne was confronted with the exam and admitted there was no such question about death, lawyers wrote.

At the time Hayne “walked out” of the exam, he was failing it, lawyers wrote. “Dr. Hayne has not been certified in forensic pathology by any organization since 1997.”

“In large measure, trial courts have admitted his (Hayne’s) testimony and reviewing courts have affirmed it,” the lawyers wrote. “Dr. Hayne has thus defrauded the majority of trial judges and all of the appellate judges in the State of Mississippi.”

Hayne could not be reached Monday for comment.

The American Board of Pathology — regarded as the gold standard by experts — certified Hayne in anatomical and clinical pathology, but he failed the exam for forensic pathology in 1989.

In 2008, Hayne told The Clarion-Ledger he failed because he got angry about the funeral-color question.

“I’ve got a temper. I don’t put up with crap like that,” he said. “I walked out and took another examination from another board.”

He made a similar statement under oath in a 2004 trial: “The question was specifically: ‘What color is most associated with death?’ And it included the color black or white, the color red, the color green.

“In Western civilization, black is associated with death. In the Orient, white is associated with death. Green is a color of decomposition, certainly associated with death. … Blood is obviously associated with death … To me, it was just the final absurd question. So I got up, handed my paper to the proctor and said, ‘I leave. I quit. I’m not going to answer this type of material.’”

After reading Hayne’s quotes in The Clarion-Ledger, board officials contacted the newspaper.

“As the executive director of the American Board of Pathology I was surprised by Dr. Hayne’s description of the ‘stupid question’ (related to colors associated with funerals) on his forensic pathology examination that caused him to walk out of the exam,” Dr. Betsy Bennett said by e-mail. “Dr. Hayne took the forensic pathology examination in 1989. I pulled the text of this examination from our files, and there was no question on that examination that was remotely similar to Dr. Hayne’s description.”

Hayne responded then, “She is flat wrong. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

He told the newspaper he would stake his reputation and career on the fact that question appeared on the test. “It’s like remembering where you were when men landed on the moon,” he said.

Longtime defense lawyer Matthew Eichelberger recalled quizzing Hayne about the same matter.

“That man looked me in the eye, looked all 12 jurors in the eye and looked Circuit Judge Betty Sanders in the eye,” he said. “And he swore that he walked out of the exam because it contained all of these absurd questions. Of course, we now definitively know that not to be true.”

He praised the Innocence Project, saying they deserve “the thanks of every Mississippian for their work to clean up our system. This brings us another step closer to bringing justice to the innocent and preventing something like this from happening again. Unfortunately, it’s only that — a step.”

Hayne had sued project officials for defamation, and the project paid Hayne $100,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

Project officials have said they settled the matter for insurance purposes.

Two years after the Oct. 15, 2007, death of his 68-year-old wife, Joyce, Parvin was arrested. In 2011, a jury convicted him, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Parvin told authorities he was out walking with a shotgun in his hand when he tripped and the gun discharged, with the bullet entering the home and striking his wife.

Prosecutors responded that investigators determined the gun was not fired from waist level as Parvin had initially claimed, but at shoulder level.

Hayne and event reconstructionist Grant Graham testified the shotgun that killed Joyce Parvin was fired from Parvin’s shoulder at a downward angle of between 25 and 30 degrees with the gun muzzle four feet from the entry wound.

Hayne testified this was a “near contact” shotgun wound and that he calculated the distance of fire, from muzzle to entrance wound and the angle of fire.

In a sworn statement for the defense, pathologist Dr. James Lauridson, former chief medical examiner for Alabama, responded that it’s a well-known fact that “the distance from which a weapon was fired in a noncontact case cannot be determined based upon an autopsy.”

In another sworn statement for the defense, Joseph Saloom, who worked as a forensic scientist in Alabama, said, “I have never heard of any purported expert claim that he or she can determine the exact range of a shotgun wound by merely looking at it.”

The only way to determine this would be by test firing the weapon, he said. “An angle of trajectory in a body cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy.”

The appeal also alleges Parvin suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel.

According to cancelled checks, he paid $50,000 to the lawyer who represented him at trial, Timothy Ervin of Aberdeen.

In a Sept. 18, 2009, letter, Ervin wrote that $20,000 of that money would go to hire expert witnesses, including a pathologist to counter the testimony of Hayne and another expert to counter the testimony of a crime reconstruction witness.

According to documents filed by Parvin’s current attorneys, no experts were called.

Contacted about the allegation, Ervin said, “I never comment about pending litigation.”

In 2007, the state Supreme Court cited Hayne’s testimony in reversing the capital murder conviction of Tyler Edmonds and ordering a new trial.

A year later, a jury acquitted Edmonds.

To comment on the story, call Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064. Follow him on Twitter @jmitchellnews.