Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Backsliding in Mississippi

This makes me want to pull my hair out. Apparently, the coroners of Mississippi don't care that Steven Hayne is a disgrace to their profession. Steven Hayne had a monopoly on the autopsies in Mississippi for almost 20 years before he was finally run out of town by the state's Commissioner of Public Safety. About a year ago, the commissioner declared that Hayne was no longer approved to perform autopsies in Mississippi. That decision came about 15 years too late as Hayne had a long and glorious history of fabricating evidence, sometimes leading to murder convictions in cases where there was no murder. (Here's one example.)

Radley Balko over at Reason did a tremendous job of exposing Hayne's practices, which had to help with the ultimate decision to stop funneling every autopsy in the state to Hayne. Read Balko's archives to learn just how bad Hayne was. (Here, Here, and here.) I can't detail all the horrors of his practice, but suffice it to say that we ought to suspect the result of absolutely every one of the thousands of autopsies he conducted for the state of Mississippi. Sadly, a lot of those autopsies led to people being convicted of murder, sometimes where the only evidence that there even was a murder came from this hack. It was a victory for truth and science when Hayne was yanked from the pool of coroners available to conduct autopsies throughout the state. It should seem clear that we don't want autopsies being conducted by "doctors" who are more interested in catching murderers (even if that means making up a murder) than in conducting a neutral examination to determine a cause of death.

So I'm having a very hard time understanding why some of the coroners in Mississippi are eager to find a way around the Public Safety Commissioner's ruling that Hayne is no longer approved. Apparently, they're not happy with the main medical examination firm who has stepped in to take over the cases Hayne used to handle. This new firm isn't responsive enough. It doesn't let other people observe autopsies. Worst of all, the firm "won't let any county officials talk to the medical examiner."

Umm. The complaint against this new firm is that they act independently of law enforcement? That they conduct their autopsies in a controlled atmosphere, unaffected by the biases they might have if they talked to the local cops? They proceed from a neutral starting point and let the evidence they discover in the course of the autopsy lead them to a conclusion instead of starting out with an idea of what conclusion they hope to reach? Because all that sounds pretty perfect to me. The doctor conducting the autopsy should be independent from law enforcement. That was one of the chief complaints when the National Academy of Sciences issued its report on the state of forensic sciences in the country. By hiring this new firm, the state of Mississippi appears to have achieved that independence and neutrality that the NAS was so insistent about.

I had hopes that the general, national trend was going to be towards better science occurring in the nation's forensics crime labs. We had Steven Hayne's ouster. We've had numerous DNA exonerations, making many willing to consider how to improve our criminal justice system. Then, we had that NAS report, offering concrete ideas of how we could make sure the science presented in our courtrooms was truly reliable science. So I am disheartened to learn that coroners in Mississippi want to backtrack by letting Hayne the Hack back in the fold. That their objection to Hayne's replacement is based on that new firm's insistence on maintaining independence and neutrality makes it even worse. If the scientists themselves don't care about integrity in their labs, how can the defense attorneys of the world convince the general public to care?


Jeff Gamso said...

So, once again, we find that the whores don't go out campaigning to make whorehouses illegal.

The cover story in this month's Popular Mechanics will probably do more to jump start quality forensics than anything they (or we) can achieve. Which doesn't speak wonderfully of the American people, but there you have it.

S said...

Yeah, I've got to read that Popular Mechanics story. More importantly, judges and prosecutors have to read it.

I guess I just held out hope that the county coroners of Mississippi weren't actually whores but were medical doctors whose first loyalty was to science, not to the prosecution. Sigh.

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