Cut of death

Radley Balko has a devastating story in today's Wall Street Journal about a Mississippi medical examiner who appears to think that he is on CSI. The reality is more like the Keystone Kops:

In January, Mississippi's Supreme Court took an unusual step. In the murder trial of 13-year-old Tyler Edmonds, the court tossed out the testimony of the medical examiner who had conducted the autopsy of the body.

The reason? The medical examiner in the case, Dr. Steven Hayne, had testified under oath that he could tell from the bullet wounds in the body that Edmonds and his sister simultaneously held the gun to fire the fatal shot. Of course, as the court concluded, it is impossible to make such a determination from examining bullet wounds.

Former Columbus, Miss., Police Chief J.D. Sanders has been trying for years to draw attention to Dr. Hayne. "There's no question in my mind that there are innocent people doing time at Parchman Penitentiary due to the testimony of Dr. Hayne," he says. "There may even be some on death row."

In addition to state Supreme Court justices and police officers, defense lawyers, crime lab experts and state medical examiners have all made public their concerns with his practice, and with the testimony he has contributed to hundreds of cases over a 20-year career.

Although Dr. Hayne refused to speak with me, the concerns about him start with his own words. According to his comments on the stand, he performs anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 autopsies a year. The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) says a medical examiner should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. After 325, the organization refuses to certify an examiner's practice.

"You can't do it," says Vincent DiMaio, author of Forensic Pathology, widely considered the profession's guiding textbook. "After 250 autopsies, you start making small mistakes. At 300, you're going to get mental and physical strains on your body. Over 350, and you're talking about major fatigue and major mistakes."