Thursday, February 21, 2008

Here's to the coroners of mississippi

I like to think of myself as a fairly unflappable guy who can no longer be fazed by tales of human stupidity.

However, Radley Balko has an article at Slate, 'The Bite-Marks Men', that really shocked me.

It opens with the release from prison of two men who spent many years behind bars (one of them on death row) for crimes they didn't commit.

Now, sadly, there's nothing all that unusual about such an occurrence.

The bit that gets more unsettling begins when Balko examines the records of Drs. Steven Hayne and Michael West, who did the forensic work on these -- and countless more -- cases.

It's...rather a bizarre little tale:

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a doctor should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. Dr. Hayne has testified that he performs 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year. Sources I spoke with who have visited Hayne's practice say he and his assistants will frequently have multiple bodies open at once, sometimes smoking cigars and even eating sandwiches while moving from corpse to corpse. They prefer to work at night, adding to their macabre reputation.

Hayne isn't board-certified in forensic pathology, though he often testifies that he is. The only accepted certifying organization for forensic pathology is the American Board of Pathology. Hayne took that group's exam in the 1980s and failed it. Hayne's pal Dr. West is even worse. West has been subject to exposés by 60 Minutes, Time, and Newsweek. He once claimed he could definitively trace the bite marks in a half-eaten bologna sandwich left at the crime scene back to the defendant. He has compared his bite-mark virtuosity to Jesus Christ and Itzhak Perlman. And he claims to have invented a revolutionary system of identifying bite marks using yellow goggles and iridescent light that, conveniently, he says can't be photographed or duplicated.

There is so much wrongness packed into these two paragraphs that I don't even know how to begin to respond.

But it becomes even worse when Balko points out the institutional framework within which such ghoulish operators appear to be able to thrive. It seems bad enough that the county coroners are elected and are not required to have any qualifications beyond a high-school diploma (yes, that means they don't need to have any medical training whatsoever).

But it gets worse:

Under state law, this whole process is supposed to be overseen by a board-certified state medical examiner. The last two people to hold that office, Dr. Lloyd White from 1988 to 1992 and Dr. Emily Ward from 1993 to 1995, were appalled at the way the state was handling death investigations. Both tried to implement reforms. And both were met with fiery resistance. Dr. Ward's tenure was particularly raucous. West (who at the time was the elected county coroner for Forrest County) circulated a petition signed by slightly more than half the state's coroners calling for her resignation. The legislature has largely refused to fund the office since. It's been vacant since 1995.

Read the whole article. And there is a longer article by Balko at Reason on the topic.


Dale said...

Oh great. Now I'm afraid of dying in Mississippi.

Thanks a lot.

J. Carter Wood said...

Well, you know how important it is to me that I spread a general feeling of well-being.

This fear is at least relatively easily held at bay. My solution: never go to Mississippi.