In a story titled “Questions Left for Mississippi Over Doctor’s Autopsies,” we learn about Dr. Steven Hayne, who did most of the autopsies in the state of Mississippi for approximately two decades . From “the late 1980s through the late 2000s,” Dr. Hayne did autopsies for the state, but rather than receiving a regular salary as a state employee, Dr. Hayne was paid by the autopsy. This gave him a strong incentive to do as many autopsies as he could. He did about 1,700 autopsies in most of those years, a caseload that is about seven times the maximum recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners.
There are now four lawsuits pending concerning Dr. Hayne’s work, with about ten more on the way. Brought on behalf of inmates who claim they were wrongly convicted, the suits charge that Dr. Hayne misrepresented his qualifications as a forensic pathologist. Perhaps more importantly, the lawsuits contend that Dr. Hayne drew conclusions based on ideas “that lie far outside standard forensic science.” For example, in one infamous case, Dr. Hayne testified that a child had died of suffocation when a large male hand had covering his face. Hayne based this opinion on a cast of the child’s face and his autopsy notes describing wounds on the child’s face, but the “large male hand” idea came weeks after the initial autopsy and only after the child’s three-year-old brother had implicated the mother’s boyfriend. According to the article, there is no scientific support for what Hayne did in the case or for the conclusions he drew.
“I saw a very similar case like that on ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ ” said Dr. Andrew M. Baker, the president of the medical examiners’ association and chief medical examiner for Hennepin County, Minn. “I’ve never heard of it in real life.” Dr. Baker said not only was the technique unheard of but so was the ability to speculate from those sorts of wounds about hand size or gender.
It’s tempting to regard this as another in a lengthening list of forensic scandals featuring faulty work. But Dr. Hayne’s situation is worth noting, because it illustrates the power of forensic science, and why those who perform these tasks must be under reasonable professional scrutiny and be subject to challenge. In Mississippi, with no one to challenge him, Dr. Hayne’s autopsy results decided countless cases, and there was no one to push back. In arrangements like that, disaster awaits. The article quotes Dr. Lloyd White, the Mississippi state medical examiner from 1989 to 1992, who explains why things like this happen: poor science is “able to persist because scientific testimony is too often viewed with uncritical reverence and because the people affected by its misuse usually have little support or sympathy.” No one was in a position to challenge Hayne, since he did almost all the autopsy work in the state, and the state and the prosecutors liked it that way. Years later, individual convicts, their families and perhaps the taxpayers are left to clean up the damage and pay for the mistakes.