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Is Mississippi About to Execute an Innocent Man?

Based on information about the medical examiner alone, it's unconscionable that Mississippi isn't giving the case a closer look.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Cheryl Havard Harrell

 
 
 
 

We’ve had too many reminders over the years that the death penalty system is deeply flawed. Now we have one more, with the case of Jeffrey Havard, a man who is scheduled for execution in Mississippi, despite serious questions about his guilt.

Writing at the Huffington Post, Radley Balko describes how Havard was convicted in 2002 of murdering his girlfriend’s six-month-old daughter. Havard says he dropped the baby after giving her a bath – a terrible accident – but he was convicted after a private medical examiner claimed his autopsy found evidence of Shaken Baby Syndrome and sexual abuse.

But there are now questions surrounding those autopsy results. As Balko writes, “experts have begun to question the validity of the [SBS] diagnosis and how it's used in court, pointing out, for example, that a number of other factors could cause the symptoms that experts have been telling juries could be caused only by shaking.”

Furthermore, there are questions about the medical examiner, Dr. Steven Hayne, who performed the vast majority of autopsies for over a decade in the state and whose “testimony helped put thousands of people in prison.”

Hayne's domination of the autopsy business in the state was particularly impressive given that he had never been certified in forensic pathology, at least not by the American Board of Pathology, universally recognized as the only reputable accrediting body for medical examiners. Hayne had actually taken the American Board of Pathology exam in the 1980s. He failed it. When asked about this in court or in sworn depositions over the years, Hayne has said that he walked out on the test because he found the questions insulting to his intelligence. He claimed, for example, that one question asked about colors associated with death. Recently, however, the American Board of Pathology produced the test Hayne took. There were no such questions.

At least two men who Hayne helped put on death row have since been exonerated.

Based on the information about Hayne alone, it seems unconscionable that Mississippi isn’t giving the Havard case a closer look.

Lauren Kelley is the activism and gender editor at AlterNet and a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Time Out New York, the L Magazine, and other publications. Follow her on Twitter.