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Mississippi Takes "Huge First Steps" Against Unprecedented Autopsy Misconduct but Must Take Further Action, Innocence Project Says

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Posted: August 5, 2008   12:00 AM

State finally brings an end to Steven Hayne’s misconduct and moves to appoint State Medical Examiner; Innocence Project calls for records of all cases Hayne has handled

(JACKSON, MS; August 5, 2008) – Mississippi officials need to compel notorious medical examiner Steven Hayne to produce a list of all cases he has handled and records related to those cases – and in the meantime the state also needs to take immediate steps to ensure that no documents on Hayne’s cases are destroyed – the Innocence Project said today. 

This afternoon, Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson announced that the state is severing all ties with Hayne, who conducts 80% of all criminal autopsies in the state even though he is not properly board-certified and his work has been seriously questioned in a number of cases.  Simpson said Hayne will stop conducting autopsies immediately and will spend the next 90 days completing his pending autopsy reports – which Simpson estimated to be a staggering 400-500 reports on autopsies that Hayne has not processed. The state also announced that it is moving forward to appoint and fully staff a State Medical Examiner. For several months, the Innocence Project (a national organization affiliated with Cardozo School of Law) and the Mississippi Innocence Project (at the University of Mississippi School of Law) have called on officials to limit Hayne’s work and appoint a fully-funded, fully-staffed State Medical Examiner to recruit qualified pathologists and provide much-needed oversight.

“This is a huge first step.  This will fundamentally change the landscape in Mississippi death investigation, which for 20 years has been tainted by Steven Hayne’s misconduct and shoddy work. While this is an important beginning, there are other steps the state needs to take,” said Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld.  “The Department of Public Safety has given Steve Hayne 90 days to compile pending autopsy reports and turn them over to the state.  The state should also have him submit a detailed list of all cases he has handled in Mississippi over the last 20 years, along with documentation from those cases, and the state should take immediate action to prevent any documents on Hayne’s work from being destroyed.”

The Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project, with pro bono support from a private law firm, are currently reviewing several hundred cases in which Hayne conducted autopsies and testified at trial.  In the next few months, the Innocence Project will know how many of those cases warrant further investigation.  There is no comprehensive list or record of cases Hayne has handled over the last two decades, since the state has not systematically collected that information.

Hayne has testified that he conducts 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies a year, more than six times the maximum professional recommendation.  He also testifies under oath that he is board-certified, even though he has never been certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology, which is the commonly accepted certification for medical examiners.  Hayne himself served as Acting State Medical Examiner in the late 1980s and early 1990s but could not fill the job permanently because the State Legislature requires the State Medical Examiner to be properly board-certified.  The legislation specifies that the State Medical Examiner be certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology – the certification that is standard for people who conduct autopsies, but which Hayne lacks. The post has been vacant for nearly 15 years, ever since Hayne helped force the last State Medical Examiner from the position through a petition drive.

Hayne’s questionable practices came under increased scrutiny this year after two Innocence Project clients were exonerated.  Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were each convicted of murder in separate and eerily similar child murders in rural Noxubee County, Mississippi, in the 1990s.  Brewer was sentenced to death, and Brooks was sentenced to life in prison.  In autopsies conducted in both cases, Hayne made the preliminary judgment that marks on the victims’ 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. In fact, what Hayne and West called “bite marks” was actually the natural sloughing of human skin after death, as well as the effect of insects and aquatic activity where the bodies were found.

Based on Hayne’s work in the Brewer and Brooks cases – and several other cases – the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project filed a formal allegation earlier this year to revoke Hayne’s license to practice medicine in Mississippi.  The 1,000-page allegation that was filed with the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure alleges several violations – spanning two decades – of the Mississippi state law that regulates medical practice.  If the State Board of Medical Licensure revokes Hayne’s medical license, he will not be able to conduct any autopsies for law enforcement in Mississippi or practice medicine in any other context in the state.  The allegation against Hayne is still pending.

“The state’s decision to sever ties with Steven Hayne will help put an end to his misconduct, and the State Board of Medical Licensure can put him out of business permanently in Mississippi,” Neufeld said. “Even if Steven Hayne never conducts another autopsy, he has handled thousands of cases, and we need to find out how many of them may have resulted in wrongful convictions because of his work.”

Read the summary letter of the allegation with the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure.

Read more on the Brewer and Brooks cases

Read the letter from the Innocence Project and the Mississippi Innocence Project to the Commissioner of Public Safety, urging him to fill and help fund the State Medical Examiner position.

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