When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

08 October 2007

CSI: Mississippi

If your blood pressure is a little -- or a lot -- low, Radley Balko can take care of that for you:

In a remarkable capital murder case earlier this year, the Mississippi Supreme Court, by an 8-to-1 vote, tossed out the expert testimony of Steven Hayne. The defendant was Tyler Edmonds, a 13-year-old boy accused of killing his sister’s husband. Hayne, Mississippi’s quasi-official state medical examiner, had testified that the victim’s bullet wounds supported the prosecution’s theory that Edmonds and his sister had shot the man together, each putting a hand on the weapon and pulling the trigger at the same time.

“I would favor that a second party be involved in that positioning of the weapon,” Hayne told the jury. “It would be consistent with two people involved. I can’t exclude one, but I think that would be less likely.”

Testifying that you can tell from an autopsy how many hands were on the gun that fired a bullet is like saying you can tell the color of a killer’s eyes from a series of stab wounds. It’s absurd. The Mississippi Supreme Court said Hayne’s testimony was “scientifically unfounded” and should not have been admitted. Based on this and other errors, it ordered a new trial for Edmonds.

But it wasn’t the doctor’s dubious claim that made the case unusual. It’s the fact that the court explicitly renounced his testimony. It was the first time that had happened to Hayne in hundreds of cases dating back nearly 20 years.

By any sane standard, the decision was long overdue. Hayne’s career in court is an egregious example of what happens when the criminal justice system fails to adequately oversee expert testimony. He may be unusually careless, but he is not unique—not in Mississippi, and not in the United States.

CSI: Mississippi (Radley Balko, Reason magazine, November 2007)

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