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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.

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.”

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