The Innocence Project Settles With Steven Hayne

Monday, May 21st, 2012

The Innocence Project has agreed to pay Mississippi pathologist Steven Hayne $100,000 to settle his defamation suit against them. The Innocence Project admits no guilt, but apparently the organization was getting pressure from its insurer to settle the suit. (Disclosure: Much of my reporting made up part of complaint asking the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure to revoke Hayne’s medical license.)

It’s a paltry figure, which I think speaks volumes about the strength of Hayne’s case. Unfortunately, that they paid any money at all allows Hayne’s attorney to make claims like this:

Hayne’s attorney, Dale Danks Jr., said he “most definitively” believes Hayne has been vindicated by the judgment.”Very derogatory statements were made against him,” Danks said. “He is pleased to get this behind him. It was not a matter of money.”

Vindicated. Sure. I mean, he has been barred from doing any more state autopsies in Mississippi. And the Mississippi legislature passed a bill specifically aimed at keeping him from ever being used by prosecutors in the state again. And he was forced to resign his membership in the National Association of Medical Examiners in the face of an ethics inquiry. But sure. Let’s go with vindicated.

Here’s where the story accelerates from mildly irritating to outright appalling:

The project’s work helped lead to the exoneration of several individuals, including Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, each of whom had been convicted of raping and murdering a child. Brewer spent 15 years behind bars and had been on death row, and Brooks, sentenced to life in prison, had spent18 years.

Both men from Noxubee County have lawsuits against Hayne, who testified for the prosecution at their trials.

But Danks said Hayne deserves credit for helping to prove the innocence of Brewer and Brooks by preserving the DNA evidence that exonerated the men.

The attorney for the guy who, along with Michael West, was the main reason two innocent men spent nearly two decades each in prison—one of whom was nearly executed—says we should thank Steven Hayne for their eventual exonerations.

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36 Responses to “The Innocence Project Settles With Steven Hayne”

  1. #1 |  Irving Washington | 

    Hard to understand. Pressure from the insurer? So what? That doesn’t make a lick of sense.

  2. #2 |  MH | 

    $100,000 is “paltry”?

    On another topic, do you have a few bucks to spare??

  3. #3 |  (B)oscoH, Yogurt Eater | 

    @Irving: Typically, businesses and non-profits will carry blanket liability insurance policies. Should they get sued for something, they’ll look to see if their insurer would be on the hook, and if so, the defense is always coordinated with, and often bankrolled by, the insurance company. The insurer might be looking at this and saying that it will cost $X to defend this, with Y likelihood of success, and see $100K as an expedient settlement. Ultimately, it’s up to the defendant whether to settle, but the insurance company might be able to bail if they feel the defendant is acting stupidly. Similarly, if the insurance company want to stand its ground while a defendant would prefer to settle, the insurance company can end up on the hook for damages in excess of coverage. So, yes, pressure from insurer makes a lot of sense.

  4. #4 |  Cyto | 

    I can see where the insurance company would take $100k for a settlement. It would certainly cost more than that to take a complicated case through a long and drawn-out trial.

    But I’m not sure what leverage they could have over the innocence project other than dropping their coverage going forward. Perhaps nobody else is interested in providing coverage for the innocence project? Or maybe they have a clause in their coverage that says they have to take a settlement offer if the insurer so chooses or else they assume all liability?

    This fig leaf is really bad news, particularly for those who’s cases he worked on. Sharpton has made great use of his fig-leaf win in a similar defamation case brought by those he falsely accused of kidnap and rape. Hopefully Hayne will be relegated to history after this and won’t have the opportunity to use his fig-leaf.

  5. #5 |  Dana Gower | 

    @#3, #4

    Or maybe they have a clause in their coverage that says they have to take a settlement offer if the insurer so chooses or else they assume all liability?

    My understanding is that is the standard policy. If the insurance company wants to settle and the policy holder refuses, the insurance company is off the hook. In a way, that makes sense, but it can cause problems down the line.

  6. #6 |  KristenS | 

    @#2

    Paltry in the sense that a “normal” settlement where the plaintiff’s case actually had merit, would garner in the millions.

  7. #7 |  qwints | 

    It’s not just about the insured’s liability not being covered by the insurance company, it’s also about the fact that the insured may be responsible for attorney’s fees moving forward.

  8. #8 |  Pam | 

    In the interest of expediency, I’ll repeat the comment I left after the article:

    this is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. The Innocence Project paying Dr. Hayne. Even crazier is his preposterous claim that he should get credit for the release of Brewer and Brooks. Without his incorrect wrong fraudulent testimony they may not have been convicted in the first place. A man who will say anything for a buck “doesn’t care about the money. Laughable. This settlement makes me sick. IP-please look into Brett Jones case while you’re looking for wrongful convictions based on Dr. Hayne’s handiwork. He testified to things he new nothing about and weren’t part of the autopsy. His phony testimony helped to convict an innocent 15 yo who was sentenced to die in prison. He’s a fraud and a liar. I hope the money paid to him by the IP, a group that has worked tirelessly to fix his deadly mistakes, got their money’s worth. Thanks IP for all you do for the innocent and wrongly convicted. It was YOU who helped secure the release of Brewer and Brooks and others, it was Hayne who helped secure their conviction.

  9. #9 |  Bob | 

    Ow! My nuts!

  10. #10 |  Burgers Allday | 

    So what is the name of the insurance company who has done this bad thing?

  11. #11 |  SJE | 

    I can completely understand why they settled. This is a huge undefined liability and if Hayne had won, the IP would probably have to shut down all its projects for a year. I hate the idea of settling, but sometimes its better to just suck it up and move on.

    Of course, you could always consider this just a temporary loan to shut up Hayne. The IP can help those who are suing Hayne for their wrongful imprisonment, and can get the money back, along with additional damages.

  12. #12 |  Irving Washington | 

    Boscoh, there are any number of ways the coverage can be structured, but typically, for defamation coverage, the option to settle would be left with the insured. If so, the insurer has zero leverage to “pressure” the insured. This is a decision made out of fear of a loss at trial, and the explanation that it was insurance carrier driven sounds very suspect.

  13. #13 |  CyniCAl | 

    Two minor quibbles.

    1. Hayne’s attorney, Dale Danks Jr., said he “most definitively” believes Hayne has been vindicated by the judgment.

    “Vindicated” in this sentence appears to be the reporter’s word, not Hayne’s via his attorney. It is still indefensible, but I think your beef is with the reporter, not Hayne on this one.

    2. “But Danks said Hayne DESERVES CREDIT [my emphasis] for helping to prove the innocence of Brewer and Brooks by preserving the DNA evidence that exonerated the men.”

    While it is understandable to make the logical leap from one to the other, deserving credit is not the same thing as demanding gratitude. In this case, in preserving DNA evidence, I would call what Hayne did a mitigating factor in his guilt.

    Like I said, these are minor quibbles which do not detract from your grand message, which is that Hayne is an irredeemable POS, and with which I agree.

  14. #14 |  Dana Gower | 

    @12

    Boscoh, there are any number of ways the coverage can be structured, but typically, for defamation coverage, the option to settle would be left with the insured.

    Yes, the policy holder can’t be forced to settle, but the policies I’m familiar with usually (always?) stipulate that if the insurance company negotiates a settlement it is satisfied with, and if the policy holder doesn’t agree to the settlement, then the obligation of the insurance company is ended. This makes sense because, otherwise, the insurance company could be forced to face virtually unlimited damages. On the other hand, it tends to have the effect of forcing settlements in relatively weak cases.

  15. #15 |  croaker | 

    @10 Yes, I want to short their stock.

  16. #16 |  Burgers Allday | 

    @15:

    I’d settle for just villifying them a bit. After all, now that CU has turned insurance companies into ppl, it is high time we started them that way.

  17. #17 |  SJE | 

    While the insurance carrier may not be able to force the IP to settle now, the carrier can decline to renew insurance next year, or charge a great deal more. A carrier can spend a lot more than 100K getting too the actual trial, never mind the actual trial etc.

  18. #18 |  tarran | 

    After all, now that CU has turned insurance companies into ppl

    You really are an imbecille. It did no such thing. The court decided that you couldn’t have one set of rules for the Tribune corporation and another for a corporation called Citizens United. And given a choice between ordering the New York Times to stop publishing news stories on politics or allowing all companies the same privileges accorded to the Times, they made the no-brainer correct choice.

  19. #19 |  tarran | 

    Looking at the big picture, they were looking at the upside and downsides of both the settlement and going to trial.

    The insurance company can’t afford to litigate every case to its conclusion without blowing through their reserves.

    The IP has largely accomplished their goal of pulling Hayne’s teeth. The man is utterly discredited. There is little upside to winning their case in court, and it would easily cost $100,000. Certainly even if they won handily, and got a judge to award them attorney’s fees and costs, they are unlikely to get any money out of the ruined Hayne.

    The downside is that they could lose and have to pay his attorney fees. If they go it alone, they could still lose their insurance coverage, and let’s face it, the IP is going to get sued numerous times in the future.

    It sucks, but this is the way life works.

  20. #20 |  Jeff Hall | 

    Mississippi clearly needs a SLAPP law

  21. #21 |  Burgers Allday | 

    @20:

    I would prefer they did an anti-SLAPP law instead.

  22. #22 |  ktc2 | 

    Huge mistake. I wouldn’t doubt he uses this to weasle his way back into his old Mississippi line of work.

  23. #23 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    The problem is now that IP is going to get this thrown in their face every time they file a case in courts from now on. This could hamstring their ability to continue their work in the future.

  24. #24 |  SJE | 

    #23: Defamation suits are different when it is an individual versus a corporation or government.

    IP had to target Hayne as an individual because he was basically a contractor. Hayne’s suit is grounded in loss of contract because of defamation. If Hayne had been a Miss. state employee, IP would sue the goverment, and the govt has a harder time counter suing for defamation for all sorts of legal and practical reasons.

  25. #25 |  Stormy Dragon | 

    #24: Yes, but even against the government, whenever it goes to trial you’ll see the other side doing something along the lines of “Is this another case like Steven Hayne where the IP eventually had to walk back their claims in order to settle a defamation suit? How can we be sure that they’re not once again exaggerating the evidence in pursuit of their political agenda?” It’s not a valid argument, but it’s likely to sway the jury.

  26. #26 |  SJE | 

    #25: I see your point.

    However, Hayne and his ilk already paint the IP as a bunch of out-of-state Yankee liberal friends of criminals (it doesnt help that one of the founders of IP was associated with the defense of OJ). So, I don’t see the reputational damage to be so bad. By contrast, going to trial in the Hayne case would cost a lot of money, even if IP won: that will clearly “hamstring their ability to continue their work in the future”

  27. #27 |  tarran | 

    Yes, but even against the government, whenever it goes to trial you’ll see the other side doing something along the lines of “Is this another case like Steven Hayne where the IP eventually had to walk back their claims in order to settle a defamation suit?

    If courts ran like they do in a Perry Mason movie, perhaps.

    In real life that argument will go nowhere because it’s pounding on the table. The only way the IP’s opponents would make that argument in court is if they neither have evidence or the law on their side (otherwise that’s what they’d be arguing). Judges know that people settle even when their case is strong, so they don’t care. Very little of IP’s work would be in front of a jury that might be swayed by emotion. I believe it’s almost entirely appellate work.

  28. #28 |  Brian | 

    Boscoh, there are any number of ways the coverage can be structured, but typically, for defamation coverage, the option to settle would be left with the insured.

    Since when? It’s completely standard for liability insurance to give the insurer complete control of the defense of any claims against the insured covered by the policy.

  29. #29 |  contrarian | 

    I was once the defendant in a defamation case. Pretty much everyone involved, including the judge, believed the case was frivolous: everything I had said was true, and the plaintiff was an elected official who by statute could not claim defamation. The case never went to trial, but in order to get it dismissed required a couple of depositions, discovery, motions, an initial dismissal, an appeal and reinstatement, some more motions, court reporter’s fees, transcripts, Lexis-Nexis searches. Fortunately my attorney cut me a break on the fees because I didn’t have insurance and he thought the plaintiff’s conduct was outrageous — he charged half his normal rate.

    The final bill: $55,000.

    Had I had insurance, the insurance company would have had to pay full rate, plus their own staff time to manage the case. The insurer would have come out ahead to settle for $100K at the get-go.

  30. #30 |  SJE | 

    #29: yep, there you have it. Although I am a lawyer, I really wish that the system were a great deal simpler and cheaper for everyone.

  31. #31 |  Burgers Allday | 

    @30: a small pitch for my blog police4aqi.wordpress.com

    the latest case i blogged was a semi-interesting en banc out of the 7th cir. a pro se got all the way to the grant of an en banc hearing by his lonesome. Big firm lawyer took over for the en banc rehearing. A sharply divided 9and plurality decision) en banc panel said that the big firm lawyer did a great job on the en banc rehearing, but that the pro se plaintiff was screwed by the new pleading rules before it began.

    things my be worse, rather than better, for the undercapitalized in the post-Iqbal world.

  32. #32 |  Burgers Allday | 

    although the post-iqbal world probably is better for defendants, even relatively impoverished ones (to the extent there are any).

  33. #33 |  SJE | 

    #31: yep. IMO, we’d go a long way if prosecutor took seriously their job as “justice” instead of “winning convictions,” and the judge as “justice and the law” instead of “processing formalities.” I do hear more cases of judges intervening, but they are few.

    The best short cut would be to legalize drugs: so far the court system is clogged with drug cases.

  34. #34 |  John | 

    What’s that commercial about being distracted at work, and so doing a bad job and then the wrong guy goest to jail….

  35. #35 |  Judi | 

    Pffft…I didn’t give up so easily. I didn’t give up at all.

  36. #36 |  Thomas | 

    Honestly, Steven Hayne needs to be in jail.

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