Watchdog suggests Miss. change death review system

Published 2:20 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A legislative watchdog agency recommends Mississippi make changes in its medical examiner’s office, which has come under scrutiny because of complaints against the pathologist who had handled most of the state’s autopsies in criminal investigations.

State law makes the medical examiner’s office the expert in forensic death investigation, but Mississippi hasn’t had a state medical examiner since 1995.

Instead, the state has relied on a network of designated pathologists to handle the caseload without any state-level oversight of their work, according to the report from PEER, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

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Most of the state’s 82 counties have a coroner, who can conduct autopsies and look into deaths that are not the result of natural causes. The medical examiner’s office comes into play when law enforcement agencies ask for evidence tests or autopsies in criminal cases.

Dr. Steven Hayne, whose contract was recently terminated with the state, performed the bulk of the autopsy reviews. Hayne had said he conducted about 1,500 autopsies a year, which is four times the recommended standard.

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.

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.

“The committee takes no position on the competency of Hayne,” PEER Executive Director Max Arinder said Monday. “The point of the committee was ’You’ve got to do something. You need to move this thing forward.”

PEER said the medical examiner’s office has historically been underfunded, contributing to the inadequate staffing.

The report recommended three options to address the office’s problems: keep the current system, increase funding and make technical changes to the law; abolish the local system and establish a statewide death investigation system or eliminate the state medical examiner’s office and revert to a local system.

“There’s a policy decision to be made here,” Arinder said. “Obviously, improving the current system would probably be the policy option that’s going to get the most traction immediately.”

The medical examiner’s office currently has three full-time employees, but one has been on military leave. The office also has a contract worker.

Its current budget is $926,000, but that includes $500,000 in new money this year to hire a medical examiner and two pathologists, said Sam Howell, director of the state Crime Lab, which is part of the medical examiner’s office.