Monday, April 11, 2016

Commentary: Tavares Flaggs: Mississippi; Radley Balko once again takes on medical examiner Steven Hayne as he describes how the Fifth Circuit turned its back on a huge forensics scandal in Mississippi; "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 in Mississippi. 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.........But what’s most troubling about the Fifth Circuit ruling is its utter failure to take seriously the scope and magnitude of the problem in Mississippi." (Must, Must Read. HL);

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.")
"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. The Innocence Project’s pleading was over 70 pages, with hundreds of pages of documentation. It lays out a system in which officials across the state knowingly used a medical examiner who didn’t merely violate the standards of his profession, but obliterated them. And it wasn’t as if they weren’t aware of Hayne’s problems. For them, his problems were a feature, not a bug. Under Mississippi law, the state is supposed to have a board-certified forensic pathologist as the official state medical examiner. The two people to hold the position in the 1990s had raised concerns about Hayne, and in response were harassed by the state’s prosecutors and coroners until they resigned. The office then remained vacant for 15 years. There was no interest in filling it, because everyone with some power was served just fine by keeping it vacant. The prosecutors and police got a guy that helped them win convictions (or helped them pass on prosecuting crimes they weren’t interested in pursuing). The legislature saved money by keeping the office empty. The state’s plaintiff’s attorneys got a reliable expert. (By pleasing both prosecutors and the plaintiff’s bar, Hayne mitigated possible opposition from both sides of the aisle.) And Hayne got rich. Many of the judges in Mississippi who ruled on the challenges to Hayne’s credentials and credibility were former prosecutors who used him while in the DA’s office. Even some defense attorneys were part of the problem. Most defense attorneys in the state are also plaintiff’s attorneys. If they needed autopsies done in, say, a medical malpractice or wrongful death case, Hayne was the only game in town. If you needed Hayne’s services in the cases where you actually made your living, it isn’t difficult to see how you might be reluctant to aggressively question his credibility in your criminal cases. (And again, this isn’t true of everyone. Many defense attorneys did raise many of these questions over the years. The courts showed no interest.).........A political solution also seems unlikely. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood frequently used Hayne when he was a district attorney, and has steadfastly defended Hayne at every turn. As noted above, Hood in fact tried to reinterpret an old law to get around Hayne’s effective termination by Public Safety Commissioner Simpson. A couple years ago, Simpson then ran against Hood in Hood’s bid for reelection, and made Hayne a campaign issue. Hood defeated him soundly. We now definitively know that Hayne’s testimony and his work with West led to at least two wrongful convictions, and acquittals after new trials were granted in other cases. We also know he has repeatedly given testimony unsupported by science, and has lied on the witness stand. It seems likely, then, that there are more innocent people behind bars because of what he has said in court. But unless there’s some intervention from the U.S. Department of Justice, or perhaps some sort of oversight move from the Mississippi legislature, the prospects of finding and exonerating those people seems dim."

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The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic" section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at:

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