Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Slicing and dicing away in the Magnolia State

By all accounts Dr. Steven Hayne of Mississippi worked his butt off. For a period of almost 20 years, Dr. Hayne performed about 1700 autopsies a year as a contract medical examiner for the state. According to a New York Times article, for a long period of time, if a body were discovered in Mississippi, the odds were 4 in 5 that Dr. Hayne would be doing the cutting.

Now there are questions about the good doctor's work. It seems that while he was collecting his $500 per autopsy, he created some theories of his own about what he observed. Questions have also been asked about his workload - on average, Dr. Hayne performed more than 4 autopsies a day (some seven times the recommended work load), in addition to the work he performed in his private practice.

In 2008 the State of Mississippi cut off Dr. Hayne's gravy train after several murder convictions supported in large measure by his testimony and report were overturned.

Dr. Hayne made out like a bandit even though he wasn't board certified in forensic pathology.

But still he kept cutting up dead bodies, writing reports, testifying at trial and collecting checks.

A physician and pathologist, Dr. Hayne, now 71, began performing autopsies in Mississippi in the late 1980s. He served briefly as interim state medical examiner though he was not, as state law required, board certified in forensic pathology. From 1989, when he left the interim post, to 2010, the office of medical examiner was unfilled for all but five years. Dr. Hayne, working as a private contractor, almost single-handedly picked up the slack. 
By his own count, he performed as many as 1,700 autopsies some years, in addition to having his own pathology practice. Dr. David Fowler, the chief medical examiner in Maryland and a former chairman of the standards committee for the National Association of Medical Examiners, called the number “beyond defensible.”

Dr. Hayne is just the latest example of the ways in which our courts have failed in their role as gatekeepers to scientific and expert testimony. Junk science (and theories that are but flights of fancy) finds its way into our courtrooms because judges don't understand the science before them. It finds its way into our courtrooms because judges love witnesses who have a bunch of letters after their names. It finds its way into our courtrooms because we have failed to do our job as defense attorneys.

Juries love to have someone tell them how to decide a case - it beats sitting back in that jury room arguing back and forth for hours about whether the state has proven its case beyond all reasonable doubt. Just bring in a witness with a bunch of letters after his name and a folder full of certificates printed on fancy paper and let him tell the jury that the defendant is guilty.

They will rarely question his opinion because he's an expert. Hell, they don't understand what he's up on the stand talking about. The prosecutor knows it. We all know it. And once those magic words "In my expert opinion..." come out of his mouth it's all over.

It's not until years down the road when the so-called expert has a track record on paper and transcripts that anyone can put together the errors, lies and fictions he created out of whole cloth. It's not until someone has the money to bankroll the research that the extent of the injustice is exposed.

We will never know how many innocent folks ended up behind bars in Mississippi because of Dr. Steven Hayne. Worse yet, there are hundreds of mini-Dr. Haynes out there that will never be exposed.

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