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Mississippi moves to fix autopsy system

A doctor whose testimony apparently helped convict innocent men has been removed.

August 06, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — The state of Mississippi moved Tuesday to improve what critics have called one of the nation's most poorly monitored criminal autopsy systems -- one that may have resulted in two innocent men spending years in prison.

State Public Safety Commissioner Stephen B. Simpson announced that he had removed a controversial doctor, Steven Hayne, from the list of physicians allowed to perform forensic autopsies, and said that a full-time state medical examiner would be hired in the next few months with money recently provided by the Legislature.

The actions were lauded by outside observers as well as lawmakers such as state Rep. Bob Evans, who said he hoped they would restore confidence in Mississippi's criminal justice system -- particularly the "very antiquated coroner system" that Hayne had dominated for years.

While the state Legislature failed to fund a full-time chief medical examiner for more than a decade, Hayne filled a much-needed void. For a number of years, he performed the majority of the state's criminal autopsies, getting payment for each body he examined. He has said that he sometimes performs 1,500 autopsies in a year.

In recent months, his work has come under fire from the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit. The group alleges that Hayne too often gives prosecutors analyses that will bolster their cases; his "improper" forensic work and testimony, they charge, has "contributed to serious miscarriages of justice" in Mississippi, including the cases of two men from rural Noxubee County who spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Such allegations have been front-page news in Mississippi.

Hayne would not comment Tuesday. His attorney, Dale Danks Jr., has threatened to sue the state over the decision to take the doctor off of the list.

At a news conference in Jackson, the commissioner praised Hayne for providing "a valuable service" to the citizens of Mississippi.

But Evans, the state representative, said that Mississippi was better off with Hayne out of the picture. Evans, who is also a public defender, recalled that in one of his murder trials, Hayne testified that a victim might have been strangled. Evans said that opinion was based on Hayne's examination of a corpse that had no flesh on its upper body.

Evans said he could not figure out how Hayne could have reached that conclusion, "given what was left" of the body. Evans noted that he hoped to win a retrial in a separate case in which Hayne had testified.

"I think it's a great day in the state of Mississippi for justice," Evans said of Hayne's removal from the pathologist's list. " . . . Obviously, everybody wants to have credible, competent witnesses, particularly when they're expert witnesses."

The Innocence Project helped free the two Noxubee County men, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, in February, after they had spent more than 27 years in prison combined. Both men had been convicted of killing 3-year-old girls in separate incidents; Brewer had been sentenced to death.

In both cases, the group said, Hayne erroneously determined that the victims had suffered bite marks while they were alive, when in fact the marks were the result of insect activity and skin that sloughed off of the bodies after death.

The group has filed a complaint with the state medical board in an attempt to revoke Hayne's license, alleging that he broke several other laws. It is also reviewing hundreds of other cases Hayne handled. Co-director Peter Neufeld said Tuesday that the group would ask the state to compel Hayne to turn over all of his autopsy records.

Hayne has said that he is the victim of a witch hunt.

Gray Tollison, a Democratic state senator who has been in the Legislature since 1996, could not say why it took lawmakers so long to pay for a full-time medical examiner. Legislators got money for the salary for this year from a fund that drew from the sale of special NASCAR license plates.

--

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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