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Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Dr. Steven Hayne Defamation Case

     In 1974, Dr. Steven Hayne graduated from Brown University Medical School. After completing his internship at the Letterman Army Medical Center in San Francisco, he practiced medicine in California, Kentucky, and Alabama. In 1987, Dr. Hayne moved to Mississippi where, as a forensic pathologist (reportedly not board certified), he performed 1,200 to 1,800 forensic autopsies a year. (The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends no more than 250 autopsies a year.) At the height of his activity, Dr. Hayne was conducting 80 to 90 percent of the autopsies in Mississippi.

     During his tenure as Mississippi's most active forensic pathologist, Dr. Hayne testified in several high-profile murder cases resulting in convictions that turned out to be wrongful. Over the years, other forensic pathologists who reviewed Dr. Hayne's work disagreed with his findings that sent murder defendants like Cory Maye, Levon Brooks, Jimmie Duncan, and Tyler Edmonds, to prison. (These defendants were exonerated through DNA analysis.)

     Radley Balko, the libertarian criminal justice journalist with Reason Magazine and the web site "The Agitator," wrote dozens of articles about Dr. Hayne's role in these wrongful convictions. Balko has also written detailed pieces about one of Dr. Hayne's fellow Mississippian forensic scientists, Dr. Michael West. In the Kennedy Brewer case, Dr. Hayne called in Dr. West to analyze a bite mark on the body of a murdered child. Dr. West, who has been essentially thrown out of forensic dentistry by the odontology community, wrongfully identified Kennedy Brewer as the source of the crime scene bite mark. Dr. Hayne's association with the discredited forensic dentist has helped taint his own professional reputation.

     In 2007, The Innocence Project, a nonprofit criminal justice advocacy organization founded by attorneys and DNA experts Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, sent a letter to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety demanding an inquiry into Dr. Hayne's cases.

     In 2008, following an internal investigation by the Department of Public Safety, Dr. Hayne was removed from Mississippi's designated forensic pathologist list. The Innocence Project also filed a complaint against Dr. Hayne with the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure. The board decided not to lift Dr. Hayne's medical license, or impose any form of discipline on the physician.

     Dr. Hayne's critics have been reluctant to accuse him of incompetence in public out of fear he will sue them for defamation. After losing his right to perform autopsies in Mississippi, Dr. Hayne filed, in federal court, a defamation lawsuit against the New York City based The Innocence Project. In May 2012, the plaintiff and the defendant agreed to an out of court settlement of $100,000. The case was settled because it suited the needs of The Innocence Project's insurance carrier. The settlement, a business rather than a legal decision, was not an admission of defamation.

     Dale Danks, Jr., Dr. Hayne's attorney, characterized the lawsuit settlement as vindication for his client. Peter Neufeld, on the other hand, said he regarded the disposition of this case as nothing more that the cost of getting rid of a frivolous lawsuit.

     Regarding litigation, Dr. Hayne is himself a defendant in lawsuits that have been filed by at least two of the men convicted on the strength of his testimony.

     To date, 300 men wrongfully convicted of murder have been exonerated through the work of The Innocence Project. 

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