Appeals Court Doesn’t Care About Fraudulent Forensics

Radley Balko reports on a terrible ruling from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that just glosses over major problems with forensic science in the state of Mississippi that may well have resulted in many innocent people being convicted. The case involves Steven Hayne, the coroner that Balko exposed years ago and got fired.

With a curt, three-page ruling late last month,  a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied the post-conviction petition of Tavares Flaggs, a Mississippi man currently serving a life sentence for murder.

Flaggs was convicted in large part because of the testimony of Steven Hayne, a medical examiner who for about two decades was able to monopolize the autopsy business inMississippi. This story should really be one of the bigger criminal justice scandals in recent U.S. history. It potentially affects thousands of cases, both criminal and civil. It involves wrongful convictions, and people let off who should be behind bars. Several of the people convicted based on flawed testimony from Hayne are still on death row, in both Mississippi and in Louisiana. Flaggs’ petition, filed by the Mississippi Innocence Project, was the most comprehensive summary of what happened in Mississippi yet to get before a federal court. The Fifth Circuit panel brushed it aside in just four paragraphs…

Hayne’s work has often been criticized by other medical examiners as sloppy, vague, and biased. In one case, he claimed he could tell by bullet wounds in the victim and bullet patters on the wall that there were two people holding the gun that fired those bullets. According to the Mississippi Innocence Project court filings, Hayne also once included in an autopsy report the weight of and made comments about the decedent’s spleen. The problem is that the man’s spleen had been removed four years prior to his death. In an autopsy on a drowned infant, Hayne wrote down the weight of each of the child’s kidneys, even though one of them had previously been removed. In another murder case, Hayne noted in his report that he had removed and examined the decedent’s ovaries and uterus. The victim was male.

Testimony from Hane and West about bite marks was critical in securing the murder convictions of Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks. The two men were convicted in the early 1990s in two separate cases involving the rape and murder of little girls. Brewer was sentenced to death, Brooks to life in prison. Both were exonerated by DNA testing nearly two decades later. When DNA from the cases was finally run through the state database in 2008, it showed that the same man, Justin Albert Johnson, had committed both crimes.

Read the whole thing. It’s just another example of how the courts don’t seem to give a damn about the guilt or innocence in a case, only about “finality” and preserving the appearance that the criminal justice system is working as it should.

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  • John Pieret

    Balko has a few things wrong. While courts have long favored “finality” (limiting multiple appeals), in this case they are working under laws passed by Congress limiting the number of times a prisoner can bring writs of habeas corpus.

    The court, as Balko claims, didn’t deny the writ because “the judges decided that the evidence compiled by the Innocence Project about Hayne was all evidence that could have been discovered at the time of Flaggs trial.” The law requires that, before a second writ can be filed, the evidence it is based on must not have been available at the time the first writ was filed. The court denied the second writ because most of the evidence it was based on was contained in the Innocence Project’s 2008 letter to the Mississippi State Board of Medical Licensure, well before Flaggs filed his first writ of habeas corpus in 2011. Thus the court didn’t “dismiss all [the evidence as to Hayne’s malfeasance] … as something Flaggs’— or anyone’s—defense attorney should have uncovered at trial.”

    I’m no big fan of judicial finality and would be glad to see the law changed to allow successive writs under less stringent requirements (especially, as here, where the first writ was filed pro se) but lets get all the facts right.

  • eric

    I don’t normally think of the medical examiner as doing forensics. Obviously they fit in that category writ large, but when people talk about the National Academies report and so on, they are typically referring to laboratory analytical techniques, not autopsies.

    Still, I suppose the same issues apply. Close funding and professional links to the prosecution is a potential source of bias and corruption, and if M.D.s do not publsh their autopsy techniques for peer review, it increases the chances of there being unintentional systemic errors in addition to bias and corruption.

  • Wylann

    The good news for the 5th circuit is that they can quote a certain SCOTUS ruling to support their position.