Late last month, Washington Post journalist Radley Balko and University of Mississippi law professor Tucker Carrington released a terrific new book titled “The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist.” The book focuses on the disastrous and untrustworthy work done by Drs. Steven Hayne and Michael West—Mississippi’s key death-investigation experts—over a two-decade span beginning in the early 90s. At the narrative’s center are two ultimately-exonerated African-American men, Levon Brooks and Kennedy Brewer, whom the discredited duo of Hayne and West put behinds bars with their unscientific but “expert” testimony. Brooks and Brewer spent nearly 30 years incarcerated between them for two separate but similar murders it turned out had been committed by another man. The book has been hailed as a “a superb work of investigative reporting.” In exposing an arbitrary, preposterous criminal justice system, the book drives home two points we regularly emphasize at The Open File: (1) prosecutors remain far too willing to rely on junk science to produce convictions; and (2) when prosecution “experts” are not actually independent and objective, their work simply cannot be trusted.
The spectacular professional demise of Hayne and West was entirely predictable, and both authors had drawn attention to their shoddy work for several years before courts and law enforcement officials finally began to accept reality. Dr. Hayne, the medical examiner, performed almost 2,000 autopsies for the State of Mississippi each year, although professional standards indicate that a doctor should do no more than around 300 in that timeframe. Unsurprisingly, the workload made Hayne rich. It also made his work totally unreliable. In one case, Hayne documented removing a victim’s ovaries and uterus although the victim was a male.
Dr. West, a dentist, began as a forensic bite-mark analyst and became a know-it-all and do-it-all expert for prosecutors. As Tim Requarth explains at Slate:
Over the years, his “expertise” metastasized, and he proffered opinions not only on bite marks, but also on gunshot reconstruction, wound pattern analysis, fingernail scratch reconstruction, trace metal analysis, video enhancement, pour pattern analysis, tool-mark analysis, cigarette burns, arson investigations, and shaken baby syndrome. West called his ultraviolet method the “West Phenomenon” because he could see what no one else could.
West became the State’s go-to expert on bite marks; he was so good at producing such evidence, he caused it to materialize where it didn’t before exist.
These “experts” so obviously lacked the qualifications and objectivity required to do the difficult work for which they were routinely enlisted that it’s almost laughable. But, one cannot laugh when you consider the potential ramifications. These men have directly tainted dozens if not hundreds or perhaps thousands of criminal convictions. The book thus “expose[s] a grotesquely broken system, in which . . . Hayne and his friend dentist Michael West . . . offered sloppy evidence and dubious testimony that helped prosecutors in Mississippi get the convictions they sought.”
As it so often does in the criminal justice system, the story goes back to the prosecutors. No matter how many times defense lawyers raised concerns about the credibility of Hayne and West, prosecutors called the doctors to the stand. No matter how many individuals were exonerated in cases that turned on Hayne’s or West’s word, prosecutors fought like hell to preserve their convictions. As one book reviewer put it: “When Mississippi prosecutors were in need of physical evidence in a murder case, they often would turn to Hayne and West.” Prosecutors wanted nothing more than to win. Whether the evidence was reliable, whether the experts were credible, whether the defendant actually committed the crime—those questions became irrelevant. The truth was optional.
“The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist” also brings shame to the judiciary. Despite hefty challenges backed by the testimony of real medical experts, Mississippi judges refused to shut down Hayne and West. Requarth writes, “[a]ccording to Balko and Carrington, not a single Mississippi judge in 20 years even held a hearing to evaluate the scientific legitimacy of the ‘West Phenomenon.’ No trial judge ever refused to let Hayne testify.” While there are a number of plausible explanations for the judiciary’s failure—we certainly have our own theory—the shame that this text brings should shine a light on the role courts play in permitting the introduction of junk science.
We have observed here several times that prosecutors all too often embrace junk science. Beyond that simple fondness for inculpatory information, however, is the fact that the State’s scientific evidence is often identified and processed by individuals or operations that lack independence from law enforcement. As we noted here: “In her New York Times piece, Professor Murphy explains that there is a consensus about the root of the problem in the forensic science system: ‘[it] rests under the exclusive control of police and prosecutors, and its legitimacy and integrity have suffered as a result.’” The lack of independence enjoyed by forensic evidence analysts is a growing problem under this administration; yet, “[w]hile it’s tempting to pin this on [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions, it’s really a prosecutor problem.”
Mississippi’s fundamental lack of progress in dealing with the scandalous influence of Hayne and West may reflect the state’s deep history of letting junk science dictate biased criminal justice outcomes. It is how the state managed to let perpetrators of extrajudicial executions—which were primarily racially-motivated lynchings—go unpunished and unprosecuted: “Historically, fake forensics were a southern tradition, like cornbread.” Other states have recently been forced to more meaningfully confront scandals involving scientific evidence. In Massachusetts, tens of thousands of criminal convictions have already been thrown out, with tens of thousands more almost certain to follow. It feels like Mississippi should experience a similar reckoning, however unlikely.
If you’re wondering if Hayne and West were ever required to at least pay some monetary damages to Mr. Brooks and Mr. Kennedy—whose lives they ruined—there is more bad news. As this post at Simple Justice explains well, the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals conferred qualified immunity upon the doctors, the same liability protection provided to police officers. If it troubles you that these huckster-doctors are treated like law enforcement officers when it comes to questions of civil liability but also have the privilege of providing “expert” testimony against defendants at trial, you smell the rat. The qualified immunity decision further solidifies the reality that the system is a sham.