This past June, I was in Louisiana to do some reporting on a possible story. While there, i was able to track down an old file that a rival had kept on the embattled and now former Mississippi medical examiner, Dr. Steven Hayne.
I’ve previously explained how in addition to his stranglehold on Mississippi’s autopsy business, beginning in the early 1990s, Hayne and his frequent collaborator Dr. Michael West started performing autopsies in several Louisiana parishes, too. At the time, the forensic pathologist Dr. George McCormick was doing most of the autopsies in Louisiana. Well aware of Hayne’s problems, McCormick assigned another doctor in his office to begin compiling a dossier of complaints against Hayne.
I should note here that Dr. McCormick had his own ethical problems. After his death in 2005, Louisiana officials discovered that McCormick had signed off on autopsies performed by unqualified members of his staff, among other transgressions. McCormick was also upset that Hayne was cutting into his own business as Louisiana’s quasi-official state medical examiner.
But McCormick’s office merely compiled the dossier on Hayne. The letters, complaints, and inquiries about Hayne came from other, quite reputable medical examiners from across the south.
I had been trying to track down a copy of McCormick’s file on Hayne for a couple of years. I was finally able to find one while I was in Louisiana. Essentially, the file further confirms much of what we already know about Hayne, with a few new details.
Most of the file’s documents are from the early- to mid-1990s, and they further put the lie to the line now coming from state officials in Mississippi—that for 20 years, Mississippi has been overwhelmed with criminal autopsies, and that in doing an incredible 1,500-2,000 autopsies per year, Dr. Hayne has been doing the state a great favor. The truth is, Mississippi officials used Dr. Hayne because he told them what they wanted to hear. More reputable doctors lost out, and moved elsewhere. Hayne and his allies in Mississippi government ran out anyone who tried to compete with him, particularly anyone who tried to conduct autopsies in a more impartial manner. The file also provides further evidence that state officials, professional medical organizations, and the local media were made aware of Hayne’s considerable shortcomings 15 years ago. They did nothing about it.
Dr. McCormick’s file should come in handy for Kennedy Brewer, Levon Brooks, or any of the likely other wrongful conviction cases to come involving Hayne should they want to sue the state of Mississippi for damages. McCormick’s file shows that the state had every reason get rid of Dr. Hayne more than a decade ago. Instead, the state’s public officials gave him all the business he could handle.
The documents in the file further confirm that Hayne’s domination of Mississippi’s autopsy system wasn’t by accident. It was by design. For example, as I explained in my reason feature on Hayne last October, in the mid-1990s, Hayne, the disgraced Dr. Michael West, and several of Mississippi’s county coroners and district attorneys engaged in an enormous power struggle with Mississippi’s last official state medical examiner, Dr. Emily Ward. The old guard was angry with Ward because she wanted to set some minimum standards in autopsy procedures. She wanted coroners to have some training, medical examiners to be certified, and for the state lab to get official accreditation from that National Association of Medical Examiners. At the time, Dr. Hayne was conducting his marathon, all-night, six-to-ten-at-a-time autopsy sessions in a Pearl, Mississippi funeral home.
Ward also wanted autopsies to be impartial. Ward’s predecessor, Dr. Lloyd White—who was also chased out by the good ol’ boys—had explained how when he would tell a district attorney that his autopsy didn’t support the DA’s case , the DA would merely take the body to Hayne, who would then give the prosecutor the diagnosis he was looking for. When they would do this to Dr. Ward, she would infuriate the state’s prosecutors by calling up the defense counsel and offering to testify for them. Of course, if the evidence doesn’t support the state’s case, that’s exactly what any impartial, science-based medical examiner should do. Mississippi DAs then wrote angry letters to the Mississippi commissioner of public safety complaining that Dr. Ward wasn’t doing her part as part of the prosecution’s team.
The documents in McCormick’s file also show that medical examiners across the south who were familiar with Hayne’s work weighed in on the Hayne-Ward feud, and tried to get Mississippi officials to do the right thing—back Dr. Ward in her attempt to impose some professional standards in the state. And of course, that would have effectively put an end to Dr. Hayne’s autopsy practice.
But Mississippi officials ignored the warnings from the other doctors. Dr. Ward was forced to resign, and for the next 13 years, Dr. Hayne did 80-90 percent of Mississippi’s autopsies—all the while unsupervised by a qualified, board-certified state medical examiner.
So if Hayne’s no longer doing autopsies in Mississippi, why does all of this matter? Because Mississippi officials don’t seem interested in assessing the damage he’s done, in making a serious effort to see how many innocent people he has helped convict, or how many guilty people his testiomny has allowed to go free.
Even after Hayne was effectively barred from doing any more autopsies in the state last month, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, the editorial staff at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson, and the state’s district attorneys either praised or excused him for his "service" to Mississippi. They’ve cited his willingness to take on a heavy workload as an excuse for his sloppiness. In doing so, they’re effectively muting calls for a thorough investigation of the damage he’s done to Mississippi’s criminal justice system, and they’re heading off any momentum toward reopening the thousands of cases in which Hayne has testified.
DNA testing cleared Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, and it will likely clear others in Mississippi. But there are a significant number of other criminal cases in which someone was convicted based mostly or entirely on Hayne’s testimony, or where Hayne’s testimony was at trial or has since been challenged by a qualified, board-certified forensic pathologist, but the case isn’t amenable to DNA testing. The Jeffrey Havard, Henry Moses, and Devin Bennett cases are three examples. These cases won’t see any real justice until Mississippi comes to terms with the truth about Dr. Hayne.
Over the next several days, I’ll roll out the most significant documents in Dr. McCormick’s file on Hayne, and explain their significance.
UPDATE: I’ve correcte this post with respect to how Dr. Ward came into contact with defense counsel. See here.