Mississippi’s Criminal Justice System: Still Burning the Poor Alive

Today Slate, ran a piece on the travesty that is Mississippi’s criminal forensics ‘system’ that defies even this blogger’s facility with hyperbole and exaggeration. Where to begin?

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a doctor should perform no more than 250 autopsies per year. Dr. Hayne has testified that he performs 1,200 to 1,800 autopsies per year. Sources I spoke with who have visited Hayne’s practice say he and his assistants will frequently have multiple bodies open at once, sometimes smoking cigars and even eating sandwiches while moving from corpse to corpse. They prefer to work at night, adding to their macabre reputation.

These jokers aren’t even certified, having failed the exam in the 1980s and, Mississippi being Mississippi, knew not to bother re-testing. Think I’m being hard on the state (from which my own dear cotton-picking mother fled in the 40’s)?

Mississippi’s system is set up in a way that increases the pressure on forensics experts to find what prosecutors want them to find. The state is one of several that elect county coroners to oversee death investigations. The office requires no medical training, only a high-school diploma, and it commonly goes to the owner of the local funeral home. If a coroner suspects a death may be due to criminal activity, he’ll consult with the district attorney or sheriff, then send the body to a private-practice medical examiner for an autopsy. The problem here is that a medical examiner who returns unsatisfactory results to a prosecutor jeopardizes his chance of future referrals. Critics say Hayne has become the preferred medical examiner for Mississippi’s coroners and district attorneys, because they can rely on him to deliver the diagnoses they’re looking for.

Under state law, this whole process is supposed to be overseen by a board-certified state medical examiner. The last two people to hold that office, Dr. Lloyd White from 1988 to 1992 and Dr. Emily Ward from 1993 to 1995, were appalled at the way the state was handling death investigations. Both tried to implement reforms. And both were met with fiery resistance. Dr. Ward’s tenure was particularly raucous. West (who at the time was the elected county coroner for Forrest County) circulated a petition signed by slightly more than half the state’s coroners calling for her resignation. The legislature has largely refused to fund the office since. It’s been vacant since 1995.

Read the whole piece and take a gander at how judges handled the piece’s three poster boys for wrongful, heartbreaking, incarceration. Call me a victimologist, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that poor blacks outnumber the many never-had-a-chance good ole boys also no doubt moldering unjustly at the state’s notorious prisons. Yes, railroading the poor is bad. Railroading by race is worse.

Some things just take away the words. Either pieces like this keep you up at night or they don’t. It’s not the racial angle, overwhelmingly. It’s knowing that this sort of injustice could happen even to the non-usual subjects in a system like Mississippi’s, should the kingpins take a mind to do so. Injustice anywhere is truly injustice everywhere. If it could happen to ‘them’ it could happen to you.


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