By: Mark Clements
We know just how unfair the criminal justice system can be, but some cases stand out in showing how our entire criminal justice system is broken and how it is a calamity toward the poor.
Take the work of forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne. He worked mainly in Mississippi, performing thousands of autopsies and describing his findings as an expert witness in trials. Hayne worked between 1980 and the late 2000s. According to the New York Times, “For most of that time, Dr. Hayne performed about 1,700 autopsies annually, more than four for every day of the year and nearly seven times the maximum caseload recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners.”
Hayne has since been barred from performing autopsies in Mississippi.
In one case, Dr. Hayne provided “expert” testimony that helped to send a woman to death row and a 13-year-old to prison. The case involved the shooting death of Joey Fulgham. His wife, Kristi Fulgham, was convicted of murder, along with her half-brother, Tyler Edmonds, who was 13 years old at the time of the crime. Based on Hayne’s claims during his testimony, prosecutors said that Kristi and Tyler together held the gun that killed the victim.
But in 2007, the Mississippi Supreme Court ordered a new trial. Chief Justice William Waller wrote, “The trial judge should not have allowed Dr. Steven Hayne to testify about a two-shooter theory almost to the exclusion of a single-shooter theory. Hayne testified that the positioning of the weapon led him to believe that two people had pulled the trigger.” He went on to write, “While Dr. Hayne is qualified to proffer exert opinions in forensic pathology, a court should not give such an expert carte blanche to proffer any opinion he chooses.” Edmonds has since been freed and Kristi Fulgham’s sentence was commuted to life in prison.
According to articles in the Huffington Post and New York Times, it seems that Hayne is a prosecutor’s dream come true—providing testimony they need to “slam dunk” a case. He has provided junk science testimony in many cases, resulting in innocent people getting locked up.
But when it has challenged Hayne’s testimony, the Mississippi Innocence Project has nevertheless found it very difficult to win relief in most cases.
According to the New York Times, at least four petitions have been submitted on behalf of prisoners who say they were wrongfully convicted on the basis of Hayne’s testimony—and as many as three times that many are expected to be filed, including from prisoners on death row.
In a telephone interview, Willie Gilbert—another Mississippi prisoner who was convicted on the basis of Hayne’s testimony—said Hayne is responsible for thousands of cases. Gilbert believes Mississippi prosecutors intentionally used Hayne’s testimony, even when they knew it was false.
In 2008, the state’s Department of Public Safety ruled that the American Board of Pathology must certify any doctor performing an official autopsy for the state. This seems to be directed at Hayne, who apparently is not a certified pathologist.
Reason Magazine reported in 2006 that Hayne “isn’t certified by the American Board of Pathology, the only organization recognized by the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American Board of Medical Specialties as capable of certifying forensic pathologists.
“Hayne failed the American Board of Pathology exams when he left halfway through, deeming the questions ‘absurd.’ Instead, his C.V. indicates that he’s certified by two organizations, one of which (the American Board of Forensic Pathology) isn’t recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. The other (the American Academy of Forensic Examiners) doesn’t seem to exist.
“Judging from his testimony…it’s likely Hayne meant to list the American College of Forensic Examiners. According to Hayne, the group certified him through the mail based on ‘life experience,’ with no examination at all. Several forensics experts described the American College of Forensic Examiners…as a ‘pay your money, get your certification’ organization.”
Meanwhile, men such as Jeffrey Havard sit on death row at Parchman prison, wondering if they’ll ever have their day in court.
According to court documents, Havard is alleged to have sexually assaulted and killed his girlfriend’s six-month daughter. Hayne performed the autopsy, claiming that the child died from shaken baby syndrome. Havard was represented by a public defender who attempted to hire an independent pathologist to examine Hayne’s findings, but the trial judge rejected the attorney’s request. The trial attorney believes Havard was found guilty almost entirely based off of Hayne’s testimony.
But according to the Huffington Post, “Havard’s lawyers have amassed strong, forensic evidence supporting his claim of factual innocence. Former Alabama State Medical Examiner Jim Lauridson reviewed Hayne’s autopsy in the Havard case. Lauridson found it lacking. He found that there was no physical evidence to state conclusively that Chloe Britt had been shaken to death instead of dying from hitting her head, as Havard claimed. He also found no evidence of sexual abuse.”
People who have been sent to prison based on faulty pathologist reports must be provided with an opportunity to right the wrongs committed by the system.
As Willie Gilbert told me from inside a prison in Mississippi, “I’m thrown inside a prison, and I’m denied adequate redress because the Mississippi criminal courts does not want to admit that the district attorney’s office permitted someone to testify falsely. And that testimony was viewed by society as credible when it shows that he framed his testimony to only support the state’s case.”
Gilbert has been told that he will die in prison. He was sentenced to natural life without parole.