Tuesday, 5 August 2008

State moves to block doctor

Pathologist had been criticized for allegedly sloppy work, testimony against defendants later proven innocent

Jerry Mitchell • jmitchell@clarionledger.com • August 5, 2008

Counties no longer can hire Dr. Steven Hayne for their autopsies because Mississippi officials removed him Monday from a list of designated pathologists.

"It's high time," said Hinds County Assistant Public Defender Matthew Eichelberger, who has challenged Hayne's qualifications in court. "Our criminal justice system just took a gigantic leap forward. This is a proud day for Mississippi."

Critics have accused Hayne of sloppy work they say led to the imprisonment of the innocent.

On Monday, the Mississippi Department of Public Safety faxed a letter to Hayne informing him of his removal.

Hayne would not comment, but his attorney, former Jackson Mayor Dale Danks Jr., said the letter gave no reason for his removal. "I think it's totally unjustified and unfair, and this matter will probably wind up in litigation," he said.

A news conference is slated for 1:30 p.m. today for Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson to field questions on the matter. One question likely to be asked is how counties are going to fill the void left by Hayne, who has performed most of Mississippi's autopsies for more than a decade.

World-renowned pathologist Dr. Michael Baden of New York City said he believes getting rid of Hayne is a mistake. "Whatever the problems were, he's done a lot of work, and it's going to be hard to find the people to do the autopsies he was doing," he said.

Earlier this year, two Noxubee County men, Kennedy Brewer and Lavon Brooks, were proved innocent in the slayings of two 3-year-old girls. The two were freed after more than 15 years in prison.

Baden said those convictions relied mainly on the testimony of forensic dentist Dr. Michael West, not Hayne, who performed both autopsies. West testified there were bite marks on the girls and that Brewer and Brooks made those marks.

"Dr. Baden has said Mississippi would be in chaos if we didn't have Dr. Hayne," Danks said. "This is a man who works 20 hours a day to determine the cause and manner of death."

Hayne has said he performs 1,500 autopsies a year. The National Association of Medical Examiners has limited pathologists to fewer than 250 autopsies a year, but Hayne has said such a number is arbitrary and that others have done more than him.

He has said he works 110 hours a week, performing autopsies and testifying in court. He gets paid $550 per autopsy, which means he would gross about $825,000 a year from autopsies alone. But he has said he clears only up to $175 per autopsy because of expenses.

Since 1994, Mississippi has been without a state medical examiner, drawing criticism from the state medical association. This past session, lawmakers voted to give the medical examiner's office $500,000 in hopes of hiring a board-certified pathologist.

Defense lawyers have challenged Hayne's qualifications.

He has sworn under oath he is certified by the American Board of Forensic Pathology, which ceased to exist in 1995.

Hayne has compared that certification to receiving a degree from a university that was later shut down, saying that shouldn't negate his certification.

Experts say the gold standard for medical board certification in the United States comes through the American Board of Medical Specialties, which has 24 affiliate boards, including the American Board of Pathology. When physicians testify they are "board certified," they are referring to this, experts say.

This board certified Hayne in anatomical and clinical pathology, but he failed the exam for forensic pathology in 1989.

Hayne has said he angrily walked out because of a ludicrous exam question: "What color is most associated with death?"

Dr. Betsy Bennett, executive director of the American Board of Pathology, told The Clarion-Ledger there was no question on that exam remotely similar to Hayne's description.

Hayne has insisted Bennett is wrong, saying he would stake his entire reputation and career on it. He has said he is the victim of a witch hunt by the Innocence Project and other death penalty opponents. The Innocence Project worked to clear Brewer and Brooks.

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said Hayne's removal "is a heartening development because I think to the extent that office is sending a message the status quo is no longer acceptable."

Hiring a state medical examiner would be a step in the right direction, he said. "Leaving it up to the prosecutors just hasn't been working."

The Hayne file

Name: Dr. Steven Hayne

Age: 66

Education, experience:

1976 — Graduate, School of Medicine, Brown University, Providence, R.I.

1976 — Internship, Letterman Army Medical Center, San Francisco

1976-80 — Residency, Letterman Army Medical Center, San Francisco

1980-83 — Chief, Department of Pathology, Munson Army Hospital, Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

1983-84 — Chief, Department of Pathology, Blanchefield Army Community Hospital, Fort Campbell, Ky.

1984-87 — Shoals Medical Laboratory, Sheffield, Ala.

1987-88 — Acting state medical examiner for Mississippi

1987-present — Pathologist, private practice

To comment on this story, call Jerry Mitchell at (601) 961-7064.

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