A Can of Worms in Mississippi

Radley Balko, writing last month in the Washington Post, describes how the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit recently turned down a request for post-conviction relief by a man convicted of murder in Mississippi. Tavares Flaggs was convicted largely on the basis of the autopsy testimony of a private medical examiner, Steven Hayne. Hayne dominated the Mississippi autopsy business for well over a decade. It was Hayne that performed the autopsies and testified about them in both of Willie’s cases.

Balko refers to the Mississippi Innocence Project’s revelations about Hayne’s incompetency, which includes: commenting about a dead man’s spleen, though the spleen had actually been removed four years before death; noting the weight of a deceased child’s two kidneys when one of them had previously been removed; and reporting on a decedent’s ovaries and uterus although the victim was male.

Hayne was unqualified (he lied in court about his credentials). He often worked at night because he had another job. He exceeded at least fivefold professional guidelines about the maximum number of autopsies to be performed per annum. Sometimes he used the basement of a funeral home instead of a medical lab for his critically important work.

Tucker Carrington, of the Mississippi Innocence Project, claims judges were complicit: “The state was actively hiding all of this. Trial judges were refusing to grant any discovery about it. All the while Hayne was lying, and getting away with it.”

Hayne was eventually ousted, but not without a fight – the Attorney General, Jim Hood, along with several state prosecutors and coroners, tried to reinstate him (they failed, but Hood later won an election contest based on the issue of Hayne). Prosecutors and coroners said Hayne was a good witness; critics interpret this quality as a willingness to say what prosecutors needed him to say in order to win convictions.

There has been no review of the testimony that Hayne provided in thousands of cases. Even now he is allowed to testify in some situations, for instance, at retrials.

Balko highlights the reluctance of federal courts even to address issues raised by the defense or the Innocence Project in this case and others. This connivance, Balko asserts, neatly avoids the opening of a ‘potentially messy can of worms’.

It is no wonder that in a letter Willie referred to a newspaper cutting about Hayne and asked, “Am I supposed to put my trust in people like these?” The answer should certainly be, “No”.

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