Attorneys ask state board to pull pathologist’s license

Published 5:07 pm Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Innocence Project attorneys say they’ve asked a Mississippi board to revoke the medical license of Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist whose work has come under scrutiny for his role in the murder convictions of two innocent men.

The Innocence Project, a New York-based organization that takes on the cases of inmates who are believed to be wrongfully imprisoned, filed the formal complaint on Tuesday with the state Board of Medical Licensure.

Innocence Project co-founder, Peter Neufeld, said the complaint outlines numerous alleged violations by Hayne, who uses the state Crime Lab to conduct autopsies in criminal cases on behalf of counties.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

If Hayne’s license is revoked, he won’t be able to conduct any autopsies in Mississippi or practice medicine in any other state, Neufeld said.

Dr. H. Vann Craig, executive director of the Board of Medical Licensure, wouldn’t confirm that he had received a formal complaint because of a confidentiality policy.

“All complaints come to me. I look at them and assign them to an investigator,” Craig said Tuesday. “The turnaround time is probably 60 days. If one turns into a serious investigation, it could take up to a year.”

Hayne didn’t return a call to his cell phone seeking comment. A woman who answered Hayne’s telephone at his Rankin County office said the doctor was out of town and unreachable for a comment on Tuesday.

Hayne, who has worked as the state pathologist for several years, came under scrutiny after DNA and other evidence cleared two Noxubee County men convicted in separate murder cases.

Levon Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life for the 1990 slaying of 3-year-old Courtney Smith. In an almost identical case, Kennedy Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 killing of his then-girlfriend’s child, 3-year-old Christine Jackson.

In both cases Hayne had testified that human bite marks were discovered on the girls’ bodies, according to the Innocence Project. Odontologist Dr. Michael West, a Hattiesburg dentist, had testified at the trials that wounds on the girls were caused by the suspects.

A panel of forensic experts that later examined the Brewer case said the wounds on Christine were not human bites at all, but were probably caused by crawfish and insects nibbling on the corpse, decomposition, and rough handling when the body was pulled from the pond where it was found.

The two men were cleared of the charges earlier this year after a third man allegedly confessed to both murders.

In its complaint, the Innocence Project points to other cases, including that of Tyler Edmonds, who was 13 when he was arrested for the 2003 slaying of his brother-in-law, Joey Fulgham in Oktibbeha County.

Hayne had testified that Edmonds and his half-sister, Kristi Fulgham, both pulled the trigger when the victim was killed. Edmonds was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prision. Kristi Fulgham was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death.

Last year, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial for Edmonds, saying a trial judge should not have allowed Hayne to testify about a two-shooter theory.

Hayne testified that the positioning of the weapon led him to believe that two people had pulled the trigger. But the court said there was no evidence to support the theory.

Hayne has said he conducts about 1,500 autopsies a year, which is four times the recommended standard. He’s not certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology, said Neufeld. The board said on Tuesday that Hayne has general certification.

“Steven Hayne’s long history of misconduct, incompetence and fraud has truly sent innocent people to death row or to prison for life. This is precisely why regulations are in place to revoke medical licenses,” Neufeld said in a news release.

Innocence Project attorneys have again asked Department of Public Safety Commissioner Charlie Williams to appoint a state medical examiner for Mississippi. The office hasn’t been filled in over a decade.

The commissioner is reviewing the situation with the medical examiner’s office, DPS spokesman Warren Strain said Tuesday.

“The commissioner knows about it and it is a concern. But it’s taking a little time to do dilligence and fully understand the situation,” Strain said.

At the Capitol, lawmakers are considering legislation that ties funding for DPS to the filling of the medical examiner’s vacancy.

Rep. Bob Evans, D-Monticello, said he proposed the requirement, in large part, because of the claims against Hayne.