JACKSON— Legislation requiring higher standards for Mississippi’s next state medical examiner and others who perform autopsies in criminal investigations is headed to the governor’s desk.
The House approved the bill after an unsuccessful attempt by one lawmaker to derail the legislation.
The bill calls for the state and county medical examiners to be medical doctors certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. However, the bill also would allow someone without those credentials to handle autopsies if a board-certified pathologist isn’t available for a reasonable time.
The legislation is another effort by the state to repair its forensic investigation system, which has come under scrutiny in recent years for work conducted by pathologist Dr. Steven Hayne.
Mississippi has been without a medical examiner since 1996. Hayne was under contract to conduct many of the autopsies in criminal investigations for years because the state didn’t have a medical examiner. He didn’t have national board certification in forensic pathology.
Some of his evidence and testimony in criminal cases has come under fire, including his work in two 1990s capital murder convictions in Noxubee County.
In 2008, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks were exonerated in the killings of two toddlers in separate cases. Both were convicted mostly on the testimony of Hayne and odontologist Dr. Michael West. Hayne had identified bite marks on the body of the children. West claimed the bite marks were made by the two front teeth of the suspects. A panel of experts later shot down the theory.
Hayne’s contract with the state was terminated in 2008.
During debate Wednesday in the House, many lawmakers said the bill was about the state’s criminal justice system, not Hayne.
“In the past, we have had the worst system in the whole country. It is our responsibility to convict those people who are guilty. It is also our responsibility not to convict a person who is not guilty,” said Judiciary B Chairman Willie Bailey, D-Greenville.
Bailey, an attorney, said he got calls about the bill, but no district attorneys or prosecutors offered “substantive” improvements to it.
Bailey said some resistance came from Attorney General Jim Hood, who asked county coroners and others to oppose the bill.
It’s not clear why Hood was fighting the bill. His spokeswoman Jan Schaefer didn’t respond to a request from The Associated Press seeking comment. Hood has defended some of Hayne’s work in the past and expressed concern about how scrutiny of the doctor could affect other prosecutions.
Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, spoke against the bill on the floor. His motion to keep the bill from going to the governor failed. Holland said the issue needs more discussion. Holland said it doesn’t make sense to increase the requirements for pathologists, particularly because the state is having a difficult time hiring a state medical examiner who meets the standards.
“What you’re doing is exacerbating the situation by saying the standards have to be higher,” said Holland, a funeral home director.
Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commission Stephen Simpson, who watched the debate from the House gallery, supports the bill. Simpson said the state is still searching for a medical examiner. For now, a Tennessee-based company is handling autopsies for the Department of Public Safety.
Gov. Haley Barbour said he had not seen the bill on Wednesday and declined to comment on whether he would sign it.