Miss. state pathologist’s contract is terminated

Published 7:40 pm Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Mississippi has terminated the contract for a state pathologist whose work was the subject of complaints by prisoners’ advocates, although state officials emphasized the move announced Tuesday wasn’t related to the criticism.

Dr. Steven Hayne will have 90 days to perform criminal investigation autopsies for up to 500 outstanding cases, said Steve Simpson, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety. Simpson notified Hayne of the pending change by fax on Monday.

Hayne was criticized earlier this year after evidence surfaced indicating two Mississippi prisoners who were convicted partly on the basis of Hayne’s autopsy findings did not commit the crimes.

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In April, the Innocence Project — a group of attorneys that helps inmates believed to be wrongfully convicted — filed a complaint against Hayne seeking to have his medical license revoked.

Simpson said the termination is not because of the criticism but rather because the state is planning to hire a full-time medical examiner, a position that’s been vacant since the mid-1990s.

“Dr. Hayne has clearly carried the water,” Simpson said. “He’s conducted numerous investigations under difficult circumstances.”

Hayne’s attorney, Dale Danks, said his client wouldn’t seek a legal response to the contract termination.

“Dr. Hayne has dedicated many, many years of his life to ensure that autopsies that were required by the state of Mississippi were done,” Danks said. “The commissioner made it very clear that Dr. Hayne had done an excellent job.”

The Innocence Project said Hayne had testified in two murder cases in the 1990s that human bite marks were discovered on the bodies of two 3-year-old girls who were raped and killed.

But the two men who were convicted for the separate slayings — Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer — were cleared of the charges after authorities said a third man confessed to both murders.

A panel of forensic experts that later examined the evidence in Brewer’s case concluded the wounds on one of the toddlers was probably caused by crawfish and insects, decomposition and rough handling when the body of the girl was removed from the pond where it was found.

Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the state should ask Hayne for a list of all cases he has worked on and all of his autopsy reports, and initiate a full-scale review.

Danks declined to comment about the Innocence Project allegations, but said “a close scrutiny of that which is being alleged has been proven to be totally false.”

Attorney General Jim Hood said he’s concerned about Hayne’s impending departure because it could impact cases that the pathologist has been involved with.

“If defense lawyers are able to ask the question, ‘Have you been fired?’ on the witness stand, it’s going to hurt in all those cases,” Hood said, adding that Hayne had “kept the state afloat” for the more than 20 years he’s been a contract pathologist.