Discredited medical examiner conducts 80% of autopsies in Mississippi; Innocence Project says ‘there are serious repercussions for forensic misconduct in state labs’
(JACKSON, MS; March 5, 2008) – The Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project today issued 23 formal Public Records Act requests that will show the extent to which discredited medical examiner Steven Hayne is using state facilities to conduct autopsies – and potentially using federally-funded crime labs for forensic work that is fraught with negligence and misconduct.
Hayne, who is not properly board-certified, conducts 80% of all criminal autopsies in Mississippi – and contributed to the wrongful convictions of two Innocence Project clients who were recently freed in Noxubee County. Hayne nets well over $1 million a year in taxpayer funds for conducting autopsies and testifying in cases. Technically, he functions as an independent contractor (a “medical examiner for hire”), but autopsies conducted in federally funded state labs are subject to closer scrutiny, the Innocence Project said.
In letters sent today to the director of state crime labs in Mississippi and all 22 local District Attorneys in the state, the Innocence Project requested all public records connected to autopsies conducted by Hayne at state labs. “Such public records may include, but shall not necessarily be limited to, any document prepared by Dr. Hayne and any document that references Dr. Hayne, such as official reports of autopsies conducted by Dr. Hayne at MCL facilities and time logs showing Dr. Hayne’s presence in MCL facilities,” says the official request, which was issued today. Under the Mississippi Public Records Act of 1983, each recipient of today’s request has 14 business days to respond.
“We’ve already shown that Steven Hayne committed serious forensic misconduct in more than one case. The public has a right to know how much of Hayne’s misconduct is taking place in state facilities, funded by state and federal taxpayers,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld. “Autopsies with no scientific basis are unacceptable whether they’re being done in a state lab or a private morgue, but there are serious repercussions for forensic misconduct in state labs. Today, we are starting the important process of getting to the truth of Steven Hayne’s work, which will allow us to take further action to hold him accountable.”
States that receive federal funds for crime labs must take specific steps to investigate and prevent negligence and misconduct in those crime labs. In the last three years, Mississippi has received nearly $500,000 in federal funds for its state crime labs.
The Mississippi Innocence Project has uncovered at least one autopsy Hayne conducted in the state lab in Jackson. “In recent weeks, we have heard from many people who believe that Hayne’s autopsies contributed to additional wrongful convictions and that he has been using state facilities to conduct autopsies for years. Given the volume of autopsies Hayne conducts, and the complete lack of oversight for them, we need to determine the extent of the problem so that we can bring accountability to the system and ultimately start restoring public confidence in the criminal justice system,” said W. Tucker Carrington, Director of the Mississippi Innocence Project. The Innocence Project is a national organization affiliated with Cardozo School of Law; the Mississippi Innocence Project is based at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
Last month, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were cleared in two separate child murders for which they were each wrongfully convicted in the 1990s. The Innocence Project, which represents Brewer and Brooks, helped identify a man whose DNA matches evidence from one of the crime scenes and confessed to committing both crimes alone. Hayne conducted the autopsies in both cases. Contrary to his public statements since the men were cleared, Hayne directly contributed to both wrongful convictions. He made the preliminary judgment that marks on the victim’s bodies were human bite marks (they were not); he brought in disgraced bite-mark expert Michael West to verify his determination (even though West had been widely discredited and should not have been used an expert); and, most egregiously, he claimed the marks were caused before the victims died, which meant they were caused by the perpetrator (when, in fact, their bodies clearly showed that the marks were caused after the victims died and that they were likely caused by branches, animals or insects near the crime scene).
Brewer, who was convicted in 1995 and served several years on death row, was fully exonerated last month. He is the first person exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing in Mississippi. Brooks was released from custody last month after 15 years in prison; later this month, the District Attorney will decide whether to retry him.
Just as Brooks was being released and Brewer was being exonerated last month, the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project urged the Department of Public Safety to fill and help secure funding for the State Medical Examiner position, which has been vacant for more than a decade. The State Legislature created the position in the 1980s to provide assistance and oversight for medical examiners across the state. Hayne served briefly as Acting State Medical Examiner in the 1990s, but he could not remain in the post because he lacks the proper board-certification. Medical examiners are typically certified by the American Board of Pathology, but Hayne is not; he flunked the exam when he walked out, calling the questions “absurd.” Hayne and West forced the last State Medical Examiner out of the position in the 1990s, and it has been vacant ever since. Once the last State Medical Examiner was out of office, Hayne began conducting more autopsies. Professional standards say that when a medical examiner conducts more than 250 autopsies a year, he will begin to make mistakes. Hayne says he conducts 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies a year.
In urging Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Williams to appoint a State Medical Examiner and help secure funding for the position, the Innocence Project cited Brewer and Brooks’ cases. “In short, Steven Hayne’s improper forensic work and testimony contributed to serious miscarriages of justice – and the mechanism created by the State Legislature to prevent such problems was rendered useless because it has been vacant for so long,” the February 14 letter from Neufeld and Carrington said. Williams has not responded to the letter and has not returned calls following up on it.