Despite questions, bill could again allow contract autopsies

Some Mississippi lawmakers want to start allowing coroners to hire private pathologists to perform autopsies again, even though counties' previous use of private autopsies attracted scrutiny.

Posted: Jan 30, 2019 10:57 AM
Updated: Jan 30, 2019 11:02 AM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Some Mississippi lawmakers want to start allowing coroners to hire private pathologists to perform autopsies again, even though counties' previous use of private autopsies attracted scrutiny.

The Senate Judiciary A Committee on Tuesday approved Senate Bill 2400 , sending it to the full Senate for further debate. The measure would set up a three-year pilot program allowing coroners in Harrison, Itawamba, Lee and Warren counties to hire private pathologists from a list designated by the state medical examiner.

Sen. Chad McMahan, a Guntown Republican sponsoring the measure, told committee members it's needed because the state medical examiner's office is running far behind on completing autopsies. State officials have struggled to hire pathologists, citing a crushing workload and relatively low salaries. Right now, the state has only two medical examiners.

"We're looking for a vehicle to help the coroners in the state and help people receive a timely autopsy," McMahan said.

The Department of Public Safety opposes the measure. Spokeswoman Therese Apel said it would weaken requirements that the medical examiner be a board-certified pathologist, and could make it easier for defense attorneys to question findings at trial.

"This bill would allow an elected coroner the ability to find any pathologist they wanted to complete an autopsy and generate a companion report," Apel wrote in an email.

She said the department is trying to alleviate delays. A budget increase last year led to the hiring of one new pathologist, but another pathologist announced plans to leave.

A private physician named Dr. Steven Hayne once performed 80 percent of all the autopsies in the state, completing as many as 1,700 a year across much of the 1990s and 2000s. His work has been repeatedly attacked in court as sloppy and scientifically unsound. In one case Hayne made a "death mask" of a boy's face and then testified the mask indicated that a man with a large hand suffocated the child. In another case, he testified that bullet wounds indicated that a 13-year-old boy and his older sister were both holding a gun when they fired it.

Verdicts in multiple murder cases in which Hayne testified have been overturned. Lawmakers eventually refilled the long-vacant medical examiner's position and mandated that the examiner control all autopsies. In practice, the medical examiner's office in Pearl performs most autopsies in suspected homicides. Some autopsies regarding undetermined causes of death are done at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Lee County Coroner Carolyn Green, who said she had appealed to McMahan for help, said she has 40 to 50 cases in which she's awaiting autopsy results. Maybe a dozen have been awaiting a final report for more than two years. In one case of intolerable delay, Green cites a 16-year-old girl who died from undetermined causes, saying her family feared the girl's twin sister could be at risk of dying as well.

It's unclear how many private pathologists would be willing to take on work at the standard fee of $1,500. But Green mentioned Hayne, who she said used to perform many autopsies for Lee County.

"There's been some legitimate issues brought up in the past, but as far as the work he's done for me, I've never had a single problem," Green said. "I personally wouldn't have a problem using Dr. Steven Hayne."

However, she said she probably wouldn't choose him for criminal cases because his testimony would likely be challenged.

It's unlikely Green would get the chance to hire Hayne, even if the bill passes. The Department of Public Safety removed Hayne, now in his late 70s, from a list of approved pathologists in 2008.

"There is not a coroner in this state who should be OK with using Dr. Steven Hayne," Department of Public Safety General Counsel Lora Hunter said Tuesday.

Tucker Carrington, a University of Mississippi law professor who co-wrote a book attacking Hayne, said it's not the first time coroners have tried to escape from the state medical examiner's control. McMahan, who said Tuesday he didn't know who Hayne was, sponsored an unsuccessful bill last year that would have allowed all counties to hire private pathologists.

The issue goes beyond Hayne. Carrington said private contractors are pressured to shape findings and testimony to please local authorities. After all, if a coroner, sheriff or district attorney doesn't like the pathologist's answers, the pathologist may not be hired for any more autopsies.

"We can imagine what these incentives are," Carrington said.

Carrington suggests it would be better for the state to again increase medical examiner spending.

"We've learned our lesson," Carrington said. "Or maybe we haven't."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 514171

Reported Deaths: 10285
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34920557
DeSoto33270432
Hinds32652642
Jackson24876391
Rankin22516404
Lee16366245
Madison14932283
Jones14129247
Forrest13785260
Lauderdale12279324
Lowndes11314193
Lamar10663140
Pearl River9720244
Lafayette8855143
Hancock7839132
Washington7553169
Oktibbeha7216138
Monroe7036179
Pontotoc7003109
Warren6872178
Panola6768135
Neshoba6732210
Marshall6686142
Bolivar6451151
Union640898
Pike5933156
Alcorn5887107
Lincoln5533136
George510380
Prentiss505385
Tippah492783
Itawamba4857107
Scott478199
Adams4771125
Tate4765117
Leflore4736144
Copiah457095
Yazoo456692
Simpson4554117
Wayne443172
Covington434695
Sunflower4315106
Marion4279112
Coahoma4238109
Leake414090
Newton395782
Tishomingo384894
Grenada3777109
Stone365766
Jasper340866
Attala338790
Winston317892
Chickasaw316167
Clay312578
Clarke301295
Calhoun285949
Holmes271889
Smith269452
Yalobusha244247
Tallahatchie232053
Greene224749
Walthall221866
Lawrence219141
Perry213456
Amite209857
Webster206248
Noxubee188743
Montgomery181857
Carroll174941
Jefferson Davis173843
Tunica163339
Benton153139
Kemper145041
Choctaw136727
Claiborne134439
Humphreys132139
Franklin126029
Quitman107628
Wilkinson106139
Jefferson96934
Sharkey65321
Issaquena1957
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 845761

Reported Deaths: 16119
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1161862004
Mobile742411381
Madison53315732
Shelby38351369
Baldwin38104589
Tuscaloosa36052641
Montgomery34492781
Lee25590263
Calhoun22598518
Morgan22459406
Etowah20026518
Marshall18790316
Houston17741425
St. Clair16904358
Limestone16153219
Cullman16067303
Elmore15912294
Lauderdale14991306
Talladega14209299
DeKalb12985269
Walker12067380
Blount10729192
Autauga10526157
Jackson10170194
Coffee9425192
Colbert9341208
Dale9024192
Tallapoosa7273201
Russell708865
Chilton7042170
Escambia6956143
Covington6943195
Franklin6338108
Chambers5785142
Marion5413130
Dallas5295209
Pike5123109
Clarke484886
Lawrence4831129
Winston4780110
Geneva4643136
Bibb434594
Barbour369980
Butler3439100
Marengo342393
Monroe337466
Randolph334867
Pickens333988
Fayette330085
Henry320766
Hale318489
Cherokee318363
Crenshaw260777
Washington256952
Cleburne254560
Lamar251953
Clay251169
Macon245064
Conecuh193162
Coosa185547
Lowndes178268
Wilcox177638
Bullock152545
Perry141840
Sumter139241
Greene130245
Choctaw93228
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