Mississippi corners attempt to defy a ban on disgraced medical examiner Steven Hayne

One year ago, Mississippi officials appeared to have ended the career of Dr. Steven Hayne, the controversial medical examiner who had performed the vast majority of the state’s autopsies for nearly two decades. Commissioner of Public Safety Steve Simpson announced last August that Hayne’s name would be removed from the state’s list of medical examiners approved to conduct autopsies in Mississippi.

Hayne had come under heavy criticism in the preceding months, including an October 2007 investigation and series of follow-up stories in Reason; the DNA exonerations of two men wrongly convicted of rape and murder due largely to testimony from Hayne and his frequent collaborator, the disgraced bite mark expert Dr. Michael West; and the Mississippi State Supreme Court’s dismissal of Hayne’s dubious testimony [PDF] in the murder trial of then-13-year-old Tyler Edmonds. Hayne, who is not board-certified in forensic pathology, had been performing 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year, several times the maximum number allowed by his field’s certifying organization.

But now a sizable number of Mississippi’s elected county coroners are plotting to bring Hayne back by redrawing law-enforcement boundaries to sidestep state law.

Earlier this year, Coroner Ricky Shivers of Yazoo County asked Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood—himself a former district attorney who has previously used Hayne’s services—to issue an opinion on an old state statute allowing adjoining counties to form their own “districts” for the purposes of administering autopsies. Specifically, Shivers wanted to know if these new districts could chose their own medical examiner, one who was not on the state’s pre-approved list. On June 26th, Hood’s office released the ruling [PDF], written by Special Assistant Attorney General James Y. Dale: They could.

Shivers and two other Mississippi coroners told me that this was an orchestrated plan to get Hayne back into the local autopsy business. Just days after the opinion was issued, Hayne began faxing copies of it to sympathetic coroners around the state. He followed up with a packet of information, including a copy of the legal forms necessary to form these independent districts. Shivers says 11 coroners explicitly told him they’ve already taken steps to form such districts and re-hire Hayne, and around 20 others indicated they might to do the same. “I’ve already done the paper work for Yazoo County,” Shivers says. “And it’s already been approved by my board of supervisors.”

Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, says he finds the coroners’ move astonishing. “You have all of this energy and effort expended by a group motivated solely by money and selfish expedience to reinstate a status quo that was a national embarrassment, and left a trail of destruction that ruined people’s lives,” Carrington says. “And this, after you had so many people come together to try to bring some real reform to the system.”

Simpson echoes Carrington’s concerns. “To me, the most troubling thing about this is that these coroners and prosecutors want to use the services of a medical examiner who isn’t board certified, who does way more autopsies than he should, and who wouldn’t be subject to minimal standards and protocols. I would caution the district attorneys that whoever they get to do these autopsies, that person isn’t going to be subject to any state law or oversight, and they’re going to have to defend the results in court.”