Henry Moses was convicted in 2003 of murdering his wife Derinda. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Moses was by no means a sympathetic defendant. He had on two occasions plead guilty to misdemeanor domestic abuse. He and his wife were chronic alcoholics. It’s a sad story. But the evidence that Henry Moses killed his wife is spare at best. The prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on the testimony of Dr. Steven Hayne, a medical examiner whose credibility has since come under fire from his peers, the national and Mississippi chapters of the Innocence Projects, and yours truly.
Two doctors testified against Hayne at trial, including the two hospital doctors who attended to Mrs. Moses after she was admitted, as well as Dr. Leroy Riddick, the former state medical examiner for Alabama, whom the defense asked to review Hayne’s autopsy. I recently asked another doctor, Dr. Harry Bonnell, to look over Dr. Hayne’s autopsy, as well as Dr. Riddick’s review of it. Bonnell is a well-respected forensic pathologist who serves on the ethics committee of the National Association of Medical Examiners. You can check out his CV here. He has also had occasion to review a Hayne autopsy at the request of a court in the past. You can view that here (pdf). Bonnell told me he "completely" agrees with Dr. Riddick’s assessment of Dr. Hayne’s autopsy. He described Hayne’s errors in Derinda Moses autopsy as "very egregious," and concluded, "Mr. Moses needs the state or the Innocence Project to get him out of prison."
Here’s what happened:
On December 22, 2000, Henry and Derinda Moses checked into a motel for a week of drinking. According to Moses, after a few days, Derinda Moses began throwing up and convulsing. On December 26th, he brought her to the emergency room. She was unresponsive. Her organs began to fail, and a few days later, she died.
The hospital physicians determined—and maintained at trial—that Derinda Moses died of acetaminophen poisoning, which was exacerbated by her alcoholism. She had taken a considerable but unspecified amount of Tylenol over the previous few days days, in part to deal with the effects of the alcoholism, but also because she’d recently been in a car accident which required hip surgery. She used a walker to get around, which with the alcohol caused her to frequently fall.
Derinda Moses’ family obviously didn’t like her husband—and with good reason. They testified at trial that they believe he killed her. But they had no evidence of that. The state would turn to Hayne for the evidence. Hayne was asked to perform the autopsy. He asked Dr. Michael West to assist him.
Hayne testified that in his autopsy he found an 11-inch section of Derinda Moses’ bowel that had turned necrotic (essentially, it was dead). He said this is what caused her death. He then testified that he believed that "blunt force trauma" caused the damage to her bowel. Hayne’s exact words: "She died of blunt force trauma producing injury to the bowel and to the peritoneal lining, ultimately dying from shock." Hayne was next asked if he had determined the manner of death. He had, he said.
"With reasonable medical certainty, I came to the conclusion it was homicide, sir," he said. He later elaborated that the cause of death was "blunt force trauma, purposely inflicted." He theorized that the murder weapon might have been a shoe, or a fist, but that he couldn’t say for sure.
It was from this testimony that Moses was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. There was no murder weapon. There were no witnesses. Moses’ character flaws and Hayne’s testimony are all there was.
The problem with Hayne’s diagnosis is that there were no corresponding bruises on Derinda Moses’ body where she should have been struck to cause such damage to her bowel. Nor was there a "path of damage" connecting the external portion of her body where the blow would have had to have landed to her bowel. Dr. Riddick testified that you rarely if ever see a bruised bowel in adults, because there’s nothing hard for the bowel to be trapped against. if a blow to the outside of Mrs. Moses’ body caused the injury to her bowel, there should have been extensive internal and external damage. A CAT scan showed no such damage.
According to Dr. Riddick’s review of Hayne’s autopsy, Hayne also neglected to photograph Mrs. Moses’ bowel, another egregious oversight, given that his testimony was that the bowel was not only the cause of death, but indicative of homicide. In fact, the prosecutor in the case tried to impeach Dr. Riddick’s testimony by noting that only Hayne had actually seen the body firsthand. This of course is because prosecutors don’t typically want anyone but Hayne viewing a body. But that Hayne was indeed the only doctor to perform an autopsy on Moses makes his failure to adequately photograph Derinda Moses’ internal injuries all the more troubling.
Hayne’s sloppiness was also evident in other areas of the Moses autopsy. Hayne failed to notice Derinda Moses’ surgical scar from a hip surgery just a couple of months prior to her death, an oversight Dr. Bonnell again classified as egregious. In fact, Hayne not only failed to notice the surgery, he explicity wrote that "no evidence of acute medical intervention is appreciated" on the part of her body where it occurred. He also failed to notice any sign of injury or healing in her ribs, which she also fractured in the accident. This too should have been apparent.
More troubling, Dr. Riddick testified that he found in a tissue sample that approximately 80 percent of Derinda Moses’ liver cells were dead—a finding consistent with the diagnosis of Dr. Riddick and the two hospital physicians. Dr. Bonnell says that kind of liver damage should have been readily apparent to Hayne when he conducted his autopsy. It apparently wasn’t. In fact, Hayne listed Mrs. Moses’ liver and several other organs as being "unremarkable."
Hayne testified that he spoke with the coroner in the case as well as two police officers before he conducted his autopsy, something he regularly does. This isn’t uncommon, but experts I’ve spoken with say it can bias a doctor. Ideally, a medical examiner shouldn’t hear the state’s theory about what happened before conducting an autopsy. Of course, Hayne’s critics say he talks to prosecutors for precisely the opposite reason—to make sure his diagnosis matches the authorities’ theories about what happened.
One other thing Hayne didn’t do is review Derinda Moses’ medical history before reaching his conclusion about how she died. Dr. Riddick and the hospital physicians did review her history. They saw her history of alcoholism. And all of them concluded that Moses’ death was an accident, not a homicide.
In its review of the Moses case, the Mississippi Court of Appeals seems to acknowledge that the prosecution hadn’t assembled the strongest of cases. But they refrain from questioning the jury’s verdict, in large part because they find enough in Dr. Hayne’s testimony to support the jury’s verdict.
Regardless of what one may think of Mr. Moses as a person, four doctors believe he is not guilty killing his wife, and that Dr. Hayne’s diagnosis of homicide was incorrect. Like Devin Bennett and Jeffrey Havard, however, there’s no DNA test that could conclusively determine Mr. Moses’ guilt or innocence. It’s not a matter of who killed Derinda Moses, it’s whether or not she was killed at all. It’s in these types of cases that it’s especially important that forensic experts be carefully screened by courts. It’s in these types of cases that someone like Hayne can be particularly damaging.
Just another piece of damning evidence in the growing public case against Dr. Hayne, and another piece indicating that if Mississippi officials care at all about justice, it’s time to bar Hayne from testifying or performing autopsies again, and to conduct a thorough review of every case in which he’s testified.