Last week, I spoke with a defense attorney in Louisiana who is preparing a challenge to a death penalty case involving shady Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne and “forensic odentologist” Dr. Michael West. In fact, there are two pending Louisiana death penalty cases where in what now seems to have been a familiar pattern, Dr. Hayne was called in to perform an initial autopsy, then called in Dr. West to search the victim for “bite marks” he could then trace back to the guy the prosecutors were after.
I’ll have more on the particulars of this case in a sec. But first, I want to look at how Hayne was able to extend his reach into Louisiana, despite an already growing number of complaints against him in Mississippi, and despite him not being board certified in forensic pathology. From an October 1993 article in the Baton Rouge Advocate:
Some north Louisiana law enforcement agencies are sending bodies to Mississippi, where they say autopsy results can be obtained more quickly.
Dr. George McCormick, a Bossier City forensic pathologist who also is the Caddo Parish coroner, has been performing autopsies for Ouachita Parish since the mid-1980s. But in May, representatives from the 4th District Attorney’s Office, the Monroe Police Department, the Ouachita Parish Sheriff’s Office and Ouachita Parish Coroner Claude Smith decided to start sending bodies to forensic pathologist Steven Hayne with the Rankin (County) Medical Center near Jackson, Miss., Monroe Police Chief Joe Stewart said. “We felt we could get our reports back faster,” Smith said.
At the time, Dr. McCormick and the two pathologists who worked for him were doing about 800 autopsies a year between the three of them. Hayne at the time was doing around 1,000 by himself in Mississippi, and still reaching into Louisiana to take on more. Seems he was able to woo a fair number of prosecutors in that state, too. McCormick was already wary of Hayne’s practices, and sounded this prescient warning:
Hayne is as qualified as McCormick “from an investigative point of view,” Stewart said.
But McCormick said he has some concerns. “I do not know that Dr. Hayne will do bad work, but I have some serious questions. I will be looking at his work,” he said. McCormick refused to say what questions he has about Hayne. But “bad pathology is the worst thing that can happen in the justice system.”
According to my sources, McCormick, who died in December 2006, started a file documenting what he thought to be Hayne’s abuses and lapses in professional standards. It apparently grew rather thick. In 1995, he tried to file an ethics complaint against Hayne with the American Board of Medical Specialties. As far as I can tell, McCormick’s complaint didn’t get very far. To be fair, it’s probably safe to say that McCormick was in part upset about losing business to Hayne. And after his death, there were some questions about McCormick’s practices too (though his transgressions weren’t nearly as egregious as Hayne’s). Unfortunately, when McCormick died in December 2006, his file on Hayne apparently died with him. I haven’t been able to track it down.
One of the first cases Hayne and West worked on in Louisiana was that of Jimmie Christian Duncan. Duncan was initially charged with negligent homicide after his girlfriend’s child drowned in a bathtub while in his care. Hayne claimed in his autopsy to have found evidence of sexual abuse and bruises he said indicated drowning. He then called in West, who once again managed to find bite marks no one else had noticed. Because of Hayne and West, the charges against Duncan were elevated to first-degree murder. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Duncan’s attorneys asked Dr. McCormick to review Hayne’s work, and not surprisingly, McCormick found Hayne’s autopsy lacking. But the courts weren’t interested. From a February 1994 article in the Advocate:
Attorneys for a man accused of raping and drowning a toddler in December have asked for permission to exhume the victim’s body for a second autopsy.
Peter Edwards and John Focke, who are representing Jimmie Christian Duncan, said that the Brandon, Miss., forensic pathologist who performed the original autopsy is not certified by the American Board of Pathology. The original autopsy was performed by Steven Hayne, a forensic pathologist in Rankin County, Miss. Duncan’s attorneys are asking that a second autopsy be performed by Caddo Parish Coroner George M. McCormick II.
But District Attorney Jerry Jones said the pathologist is qualified, and Jones will fight any attempt to exhume the body.
The DA won. The court ruled against an exhumation, and Duncan was convicted thanks in large part to Hayne and West—with no one from the defense team given an opportunity to check their work. Duncan is currently represented by Louisiana’s Office of Capital Post Conviction Relief, where staff have since found more evidence suggesting Duncan’s innocence, and more problems with the testimony from Hayne and West. I’ll report back when they’ve wrapped up their investigation.
There have been ample warnings about Hayne and West going back nearly two decades. Not only were those warnings not heeded, they seemed to have actually made Hayne and West more desirable to many prosecutors.