Legal experts ponder fallout of Hayne firing

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Area legal officials are hoping for minimal local fallout as aresult of the termination of controversial longtime designatedstate pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne.

After performing as many as 1,500 autopsies for 76 counties allover Mississippi, Hayne was relieved of his duties Monday. Althoughstate officials said Hayne’s termination was not related tocriticism, critics have contended his testimony in some cases hashelped wrongly convict some defendents.

Hayne has been a witness for the state in a number of LincolnCounty cases over the years.

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District Attorney Dee Bates said while there will, of course, becases that may be revisited from the years when Hayne was doing allthe autopsy work for all but six Mississippi counties, most of theones affecting Lincoln County will stand.

“On cases we’ve put to bed and cases we have pending, there arelots of different ramifications of that,” he said.

Bates said part of the reason he believes Hayne’s removal maynot cause a big stir is that while Hayne’s testimony is alwaysimportant, it has been rare that it has actually been the onlyevidence used to convict a murderer.

“Steven Hayne has never put anyone in prison; he can onlytestify as to cause and manner of death and that’s pretty obviousin most of the cases we’ve had,” he said. “If there’s a bullet holein someone’s head, that’s pretty much conclusive that he was killedby a shot to the head.”

Public Defender Gus Sermos agreed with Bates that while Hayne’stestimony has been a factor in many cases, he can’t remember a timethat it has been the deciding factor.

“In my case, what he testified to didn’t convict or not convictanyone, he just testified that people were dead,” he said. “In noneof my cases did it decide the verdict.”

In other words, Sermos said, hopefully the deposal will not leaddefense lawyers to clamor for new trials for clients who wereconvicted in cases where Hayne performed the autopsy.

“It probably could turn a few things over, but they really haveto look back and see if Hayne’s testimony was a critical issue,” hesaid. “In a lot of them he didn’t hurt anything, but didn’t helpthem.

Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said Tuesday during anews conference that he wants Hayne to complete all his outstandingautopsies within the 90 days left on his contract.

Meanwhile the Department of Public Safety has entered into acontract with Forensic Medical Inc. of Nashville, which has alreadytaken over autopsy duties for Hayne. Forensic Medical has fivefull-time, board-certified pathologists, Simpson said, who will bepaid the same $550 per autopsy fee as Hayne.

Lincoln County Coroner Clay McMorris said Hayne’s deposal was abit of a surprise, and that he had been initially concerned as tohow to handle situations where autopsies were needed from the StateCrime Lab.

“I was wondering to myself today what counties will do withautopsies going on right now,” he said Tuesday. “I talked todaywith the ME’s office to get a little feedback on Lincoln County andwhat we need to do as far as autopsies, but they said everythingreally is the same. If we send an autopsy to Jackson we’ll be doingthe same things we’ve always done. But it’s not Dr. Hayne, justsomeone new on the other side.”

Bates said the switch could cause glitches in currentinvestigations and upcoming trials.

“We have cases currently under investigation, we were kind ofcaught surprised by this switch also. I hate to confess that, butwe were,” Bates said. “But we’ve got to do the best job we can withwhat we’ve got now.”

Bates cited several upcoming cases which Hayne was expected tobe involved in, not the least of which is the retrial of accusedkiller Michael Leggett, who was convicted in February of murdering36-year-old Jewell Duane Douglas in 2006. Hayne was a witness forthe prosecution in the original case, and was expected to testifyfor the prosecution again.

Sermos said, however, that he felt that while some people mayhave been gunning for Hayne, he didn’t it was warranted.

“A lot of things about Dr. Hayne that are different, but I likedworking with him in court,” he said. “Maybe he did too much work,but it’s really only in a few cases he went out on a limb to get toa conclusion. But I never saw him do that in any of my cases.”

Still it will be interesting to see what the ramifications areof the new situation, Bates said.

“He was associated with every murder case we’ve had in the lastdecade – and not only us, but 76 counties in the state,” Batessaid. “This was a far-reaching situation.”