Medical examiners often play an integral role in criminal cases when they are called as an expert witnesses to testify on the behalf of the prosecution. In most cases, these medical examiners’ opinions are trusted and their testimony often heavily influences whether someone is found guilty or acquitted.
The infamous Dr. Steven Hayne of Mississippi has been regarded as an incompetent and unreliable medical examiner by the medical and legal communities for years now. Even though Hayne has not been a medical examiner since 2008, his legacy continues to wreak havoc on the lives of those whom he testified against.
Hayne began working with dentist Michael West, his frequent collaborator, in 1987 when he began performing autopsies in Mississippi. Despite lacking sufficient credentials, Hayne monopolized the autopsies performed in Mississippi, claiming he was completing 1200 to 1500 autopsies a year; working 365 days per year, that’s more than 3 autopsies per day. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends about 250 autopsies per medical examiner per year.
With Hayne backing up West’s testimonies, and vice versa, the two frequently worked together, resulting in several men being sentenced to life in prison. One of these men was Levon Brooks in 1990. Brooks was convicted of raping and murdering 3-year old Courtney Smith in Brooksville, Miss. This occurred after Hayne found bite marks on the girl during the autopsy and called Michael West to take dental molds of several suspects and compare them to the marks found. Just ten days after the murder, Levon Brooks was identified as the abductor by Courtney Smith’s sister and was found to be the perpetrator through a dental mold test performed by West. Brooks was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.
Again the two collaborated in a strikingly similar case in Mississippi. In this case, a young girl was abducted, raped, and killed. The police focused their search on a friend of the girl’s sister. This man, Kennedy Brewer, was then tried and convicted thanks to another bite mark examination performed by Hayne and West. Brewer was sentenced to death.
One of the first instances in which Michael West used this dental mark examination was in 1989 with the case of Henry Lee Harrison. West used blue ultraviolet light to reveal bite marks on the body which were previously unseen. Just like Steven Hayne, Michael West’s methods have been criticized by many in the past. West and Hayne found that when the two collaborated using the bite mark examination they were very successful.
“He is clearly a sore on the body of forensic science,” says James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic science at George Washington University and publisher of Scientific Sleuthing Review, an industry newsletter. “He is forever going beyond what other scientists are willing or able to say.” - ABA Journal
In 2001, The Innocence Project was investigating the case of Kennedy Brewer and found DNA evidence that proved he was not the perpetrator. However, authorities initially didn’t find the true criminal and Brewer remained in prison until Albert Johnson, another suspect in both cases, was re-interviewed by law enforcement officials. Johnson admitted to committing the crimes that Brewer and Brooks had been convicted of and the two men were freed in 2008.
Upon this news, Stephen Hayne and Michael West underwent intense scrutiny regarding their practices and methods. Hayne was found to be incompetent and overbearing by his peers and those who he worked with.
“For nearly 20 years, Hayne performed as much as 90 percent of the criminal autopsies in Mississippi, which by his own account could approach 1,800 autopsies per year. Over the last two years, The Huffington Post has reported on several other cases in which Hayne and his frequent collaborator Michael West have given questionable testimony or issued forensics reports that led to a wrongful arrest — most recently in January, with an investigation into the 1997 murder of 39-year-old Kathy Mabry.”- The Huffington Post
Although the media and the general public contended that Stephen Hayne and his partner were incompetent, Hayne still maintained a large following of supporters in his home state. This is only evident through the fact that he was allowed to continue practicing.
In 2002, Jeffery Havard was convicted of killing his girlfriend’s infant child. Hayne was an expert witness during the case of Mr. Havard, despite his own recent credibility issues. Hayne contended that Havard had sexually abused the child and then subsequently killed the child through violent shaking. Mr. Havard was sentenced to death even though he argued that the child had just slipped from his hands and hit her head.
“Once Havard was convicted, his case was kicked up to the Mississippi Capital Post Conviction Office, a well-funded state legal defense agency that was started after several federal court decisions pretty much demanded it. That office hired former Alabama State Medical Examiner Jim Lauridson to review Hayne’s autopsy in the Havard case. Lauridson found it lacking.” -The Huffington Post
Hayne’s autopsies were often lacking even though they were not reviewed consistently by his medical peers. Hayne’s work as an expert witness did not simply send one man to death row in Mississippi: Jeffery Havard is on death row as well as Devin Bennett, Eddie Lee Howard, and Jimmie Duncan thanks to Hayne and West.
Hayne does not continue to practice as a medical examiner, nor is it likely he will continue to act as an expert witness. He still is called to the stand to review and comment on postconviction cases in which he originally performed autopsies. Hayne, and those who abuse their power within the justice system for their own gain, must be rooted out and expelled if we are to have a justice system that can be trusted to produce reliable outcomes.