Book raises questions about criminal evidence
It’s not just about Steven Hayne and Michael West.
That’s one message from a new book examining the influence that Hayne, a pathologist, and West, a dentist who specialized in matching bite marks, had on Mississippi’s justice system.
“The Cadaver King and The Country Dentist,” which goes on sale Tuesday, examines the work of Hayne and West, as well as prosecutors and judges who did little to stop or question their output for years.
“There’s a lot of blame to go around, and a lot of responsibility,” said co-author Tucker Carrington, a University of Mississippi law professor who leads the Mississippi Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted. He wrote the book along with journalist Radley Balko.
The book details how coroners and prosecutors helped Hayne perform most autopsies in Mississippi. The authors conclude that Hayne was — at best — sloppy and overworked. At worst, they suggest he shaped his testimony to help convict people suspected of crimes by the police, instead of hewing to the science of what a dead body could tell him. The authors question “outrageous” claims that Hayne offered in some cases, such as a trial in a 2002 death when Hayne made a “death mask” of a boy’s face and then claimed he had determined that the mask indicated that a man with a large hand had suffocated the child. The mother’s boyfriend was convicted in the case. The book is even harder on West.
Former state attorney general and supreme court chief justice Ed Pittman is among those quoted questioning the two.
“I wish now that I had been more courageous,” Pittman told Carrington in an interview. “A couple of those old cases embarrass me now. We should have been less accepting of Hayne and that culture.”
But the book asks why Attorney General Jim Hood and judges didn’t do more to stop Hayne and West, or at least re-examine cases once their work came under fire.
Chief Justice William Waller Jr. declined comment, while Hood didn’t respond to a Friday request for comment.
The authors think there needs to be a systemic re-evaluation of the cases where testimony by Hayne and West led to a conviction, but there’s not even a good list of all such cases. When the Innocence Project filed public records requests to compile such a list in 2008, none of the state’s district attorneys complied.
Hood’s office, meanwhile, has continued to defend work by Hayne and West.
“They just have this reflexive, defiant posture that they were going to defend every case,” Carrington said.
The Mississippi Supreme Court, though, has begun to overturn or send back some cases, on a one-by-one basis. In October, justices overturned the murder convictions of Sherwood Brown in three 1993 killings, one case in which West testified. Since then, DNA evidence has shown that blood on the bottom of Brown’s shoe didn’t match the blood of any of the murder victims.
In Columbus, a circuit judge has yet to rule after the Supreme Court granted a new hearing for Eddie Lee Howard, who has been twice convicted of the murdering an 84-year-old woman by stabbing her. At Brown’s initial trial, prosecutors argued a bite mark on his wrist matched the bite mark of one of the victims. However, DNA testing later showed none of Brown’s DNA was in the victim’s mouth.
Jeff Amy has covered politics and government for The Associated Press in Mississippi since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at jeffamy.