Friday, 8 August 2008

Mississippi to stop using part-time medical examiner Hayne

By John Mott Coffey Dispatch Capitol Bureau

Wednesday, August 6, 2008 11:50 AM CDT

JACKSON —The state will stop using much-criticized medical examiner Steven Hayne, but it’s not because of allegations he’s inept or provided bogus evidence for prosecutors to get two innocent Noxubee County men convicted of murder.

“He was not let go because of any incompetence or allegations made by anyone,” said state Public Safety Commissioner Stephen Simpson.

At a Tuesday news conference, Simpson said the forensic pathologist’s contract is being severed because Mississippi has more money to upgrade the state medical examiner’s office by hiring full-time, board-certified doctors to perform autopsies and gather criminal evidence.

Hayne has been working part time and done most of the state medical examiner’s duties since the position has been vacant for 13 years.

While Simpson recruits a state medical examiner and two associates, pathologists with a Nashville-based firm will do autopsies and evidence-gathering services for state and local criminal investigations.

Local impact

The changes in the state crime lab brought about from Hayne’s removal will have a minimal impact on Lowndes County authorities’ ability to perform autopsies, Lowndes County Coroner Greg Merchant assured.

“The only way it will really affect us will be the time that we can go down to the state crime lab,” Merchant explained. “We are used to Hayne coming in at 5 p.m. and working the night hours, but now it will be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

The shift in working hours at the state crime lab will not affect the number of autopsies Merchant will be able to perform each month, and will possibly expedite the county coroner’s autopsy report-writing process.

“It won’t change the amount of autopsies we are able to perform,” Merchant explained as he returned to Columbus from Tuesday’s conference in Jackson. “In fact, the turn around on our reports will probably be faster because of the new hours.

“I’ve been down in Jackson all day hearing about how the state is handling this, and I’ve been impressed with what I’ve heard,” Merchant added. “It’s actually going to be an OK deal for everyone.”

Wrongful convictions

One of the attorneys for Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks — the two Noxubee County men wrongfully convicted of murder in the 1990s and exonerated earlier this year — said severing Hayne’s contract will help improve Mississippi’s criminal-justice system.

“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,” Innocence Project Co-Director Peter Neufeld said in a statement he issued Tuesday.

The Innocence Project has alleged that prosecutor-friendly forensic experts like Hayne have helped persuade jurors to convict Brewer, Brooks and others not guilty of murder.

However, Simpson said he’s seen no evidence that Hayne was a bad medical examiner - but just an overworked forensic pathologist at an underfunded state morgue facility.

“He has provided a tremendous service under very, very difficult circumstances,” said Simpson, a former prosecutor and circuit judge who’s been Mississippi’s public safety commissioner since May.

Brewer and Brooks were convicted of raping and murdering two young girls in Noxubee County, but evidence used against them was recently discredited after they served years in prison.

Based on DNA samples obtained after Brewer’s conviction, charges against him were dismissed in February. Brooks’ conviction was thrown out in March. Another man has reportedly confessed to the murders Brewer and Brooks were convicted of.

‘Very trying conditions’

Hayne should not be blamed for the wrongful convictions, said his attorney, Dale Danks.

“There has been criticism along the way, which I feel like today will be put to rest by virtue of the fact that the commissioner made it very clear that Doctor Hayne has done an excellent job, and he’s done it under some very trying conditions,” Danks said.

Simpson said he doesn’t know if the Innocence Project’s charges against Hayne are true.

“The courts of law will determine whether that occurred or not. ... I don’t have an opinion as to the Innocence Project’s allegations,” he said.

Hayne has three months to finish up pending criminal-autopsy reports, said Simpson, who notified him of his job termination on Monday. The commissioner did note that Hayne can apply for the job as full-time medical examiner.

The Innocence Project - the New York-based group of attorneys who help people they believe were wrongfully convicted of crimes — filed a complaint against Hayne in April seeking to have his medical license revoked. However, state Board of Medical Licensure executive director Vann Craig said Tuesday he could not comment on the case because of confidentiality rules.

Full-time examiner

The charges against Hayne have highlighted the calls made to upgrade the state medical examiner’s office and hire full-time pathologists. The Legislature in April responded by providing an extra $500,00 to the Department of Public Safety to hire a state medical examiner and two associates to do forensic pathology duties. The agency hasn’t been given enough funds in previous years to pay a good salary to attract board-certified forensic pathologists to work full time, Simpson said.

The $500,000 is from revenues generated by selling Mississippi’s popular NASCAR vehicle license plates. The money had previously been earmarked totally for repairs at the Mississippi Capitol, the Old Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion.

Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who presides over the state Senate, said getting more money for the state medical examiner’s office and crime lab is a high priority for him. This, he said, will help “to make sure that the innocent are not wrongfully accused. And, often times, it takes the expert crime lab and a good medical examiner to do that.”

Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1990 slaying of 3-year-old Courtney Smith. Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 killing of 3-year-old Christine Jackson.

In both cases, Hayne had testified that human bite marks were discovered on the girls’ bodies, according to the Innocence Project. Michael West, a Hattiesburg dentist, had testified at the trials that wounds on the girls were caused by the suspects.

A panel of forensic experts later said the victim’s wounds were not human bite marks but likely caused by crawfish and insects.

In its request for revoking Hayne’s medical license, the Innocence Project also pointed to the case of teenager Tyler Edmonds, who the state Supreme Court ruled last year was wrongfully convicted of murder in Oktibbeha County based partly on bogus evidence provided by Hayne.

The high court said Oktibbeha County Circuit Judge Jim Kitchens should not have allowed Hayne to testify about his “scientifically unfounded” theory that both Edmonds and sister Kristi Fulgham pulled the trigger of the pistol used to kill her husband Joey Fulgham.

Edmonds was convicted in 2004 of murder and sentenced to life in prison, but he was released last year for a new trial. Kristi Fulgham was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Her court appeals are pending.

Dispatch reporter Neal Wagner contributed to this story.

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