Jackson Free Press

Mississippi Court System, Autopsy Expert Slammed

by Adam Lynch
April 8, 2008

Innocence Project attorneys, activists and a man who served 12 years in Parchman for a crime he did not commit are calling for a radical overhaul of the state’s criminal-justice system in order to keep innocent Mississippians out of prison. Part of that overhaul, the Innocence Project says, is to revoke the medical license of Dr. Steven Hayne, the de facto autopsy expert in the state who has filled the role of state medical examiner in an unofficial capacity.

In a 1,000-page formal allegation released Tuesday, Innocence Project Co-director Peter Neufeld said Hayne is a major cause of the imprisonment of innocent people in Mississippi. “Steven Hayne’s long history of misconduct, incompetence and fraud has sent truly innocent people to death row or to prison for life. This is precisely why regulations are in place to revoke medical licenses,” Neufeld said. Hayne’s office did not return calls.

At a Millsaps College forum Monday night, Mississippi Innocence Project Director Tucker Carrington pointed to Hayne as a significant factor in a flawed system that allows men like Noxubee County residents Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, recently exonerated for raping and murdering two toddlers, to go to jail for crimes they did not commit.

“It’s a question of money and where we want to put our resources, and when you don’t do those things, what’s allowed to flourish are people like Dr. Hayne, and he’s caused untold amounts of damage to individuals and this state by his actions,” Carrington said, adding that the Innocence Project is “screen(ing) cases involving Hayne” for evidence of malfeasance.

Exonerated Jacksonian Cedric Willis spoke to the audience about spending 12 years behind bars, nine of them in Parchman, for a murder he did not commit—even as Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter made no move to exonerate him during those years he spent wrongfully serving time, despite the existence of evidence that could clear him.

“He had a motion on my freedom for years, and I never got a response from him. The judge had a right to say, ‘This is not right,’” Willis said, earlier questioning how DeLaughter could “sleep at night” knowing he’d sent an innocent man to rot in prison.

DeLaughter was the assistant district attorney at the time, working under District Attorney Ed Peters, who prosecuted Willis. Judge Breland Hilburn was the judge in the Willis case; neither he, DeLaughter or Peters pushed to allow DNA evidence and witness testimony that could have proved Willis innocent. The real killer remains at large.

DeLaughter is currently under investigation for allegedly taking bribes from Peters, on behalf of attorney Dickie Scruggs, to influence cases. The Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance recently suspended DeLaughter from the bench while the federal investigation continues.

Louisiana Innocence Project Director Emily Maw, who helped Willis finally gain his freedom March 6, 2006, joined the other panelists Monday in the student union to decry a system slanted toward unfair convictions through police or prosecutorial misconduct.

“When Cedric Willis was prosecuted, the state of Mississippi knew full well that they had an innocent man,” Maw said. “This was not a case where the prosecutor thought he maybe had a weak case but ... went ahead with the prosecution with some reservations.”

Maw added: “They knew outright that Cedric Willis did not commit this crime and they said so themselves in the newspapers—then they willingly kept out evidence that would have proved him innocent, and they let him sit in jail.”

“They should be punished for that and probably never will be because state law says that if the prosecutor does something wrong they have almost absolute immunity.”

With DeLaughter and Peters legally protected, Willis has since sued the city of Jackson for its role in his prosecution.

Mississippi Innocence Project Director Tucker Carrington said the case of Brewer and Brooks revealed that the problem went further than simple shoddy prosecution:

“In (the) Noxubee (case) the prosecutor got up in his opening statement, and made the ... most perfunctory, unemotional open statement I’ve ever seen. … You know why? When the judge turned to the defense attorney and asked him, ‘Would you like to make an opening statement,’ the defense lawyer said, ‘No.’ With that kind of lawyering, the prosecution doesn’t even have to do anything. They don’t have to investigate the case. They don’t really have to go out and find someone different than Hayne.”

Maw went on to say that the flawed system is not limited to Mississippi.

“One of our cases in Louisiana, which we’ve been working on for six years, the man is so blatantly innocent, it’s the kind of case that you read about, and you can’t believe it was ever successfully prosecuted in the first place.”

Maw explained that their client’s lawyer “represented the real killer at the time—a real case of professional conflict.” The jury convicted the innocent man, and he was sentenced to death, though one jury member later read an FBI report—evidence withheld by the state of Louisiana—revealing the man’s innocence and identifying the real killer. Maw said that case is still sitting in line after six years of Innocence Project labor because the court system is “too slow,” and because prosecutors put up “a lot of resistance.”

She added that judges coming up for re-election sometimes fought retrials, believing that “letting an innocent person out of jail was bad publicity.”

Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Nsombi Lambright said Monday that the state’s system for installing circuit court judges is inherently flawed.

“We have judges in Mississippi who run on a platform of being tough on crime. We should all have a problem with that because a judge is supposed to be fair, impartial and committed to justice,” Lambright said. “If you’re ‘tough on crime,’ you’ve already said that you’re sitting on that bench specifically to lock people up.”

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice