The Mississippi Supreme Court has thrown out the testimony of the prolific and controversial medical examiner Steven Hayne and ordered a new trial for convicted murderer David Parvin in a unanimous decision. It’s the second time in 20 years that the court has found problems with Hayne’s testimony in a murder case and may foreshadow things to come.
The state high court justices found Hayne’s testimony and another forensic witness’s recreation of the killing based on Hayne’s measurements to be “woefully short of the requirements for admissibility,” according to the opinion issued Thursday. Furthermore, the court ruled that because “the speculative ‘expert’ opinions and the accompanying computer-generated depictions of a ‘possible’ account of the shooting should not have been placed before the jury.”
“As this constituted the main evidence utilized to undermine Parvin’s defense, reversal is required,” the justices wrote, throwing out Parvin's conviction and sentence and ordering a new trial.
Parvin, now 73, was convicted in 2011 of killing his wife Joyce four years earlier. Parvin told police he mistakenly fired the shotgun he was carrying when he tripped as he rushed outside to kill a beaver. The Parvins lived near the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway, an area where beavers and other waterlife can be bothersome. But at Parvin’s trial, Hayne testified that he could tell by the shot pattern that the gun that killed Joyce Parvin was fired at shoulder height, not a waist height, as Parvin had claimed. Despite neither inspecting the gun nor knowing what type of shotgun it was, Hayne also said the gun was fired from a distance of four feet from Joyce Parvin, again contradicting David Parvin’s story.
For nearly 20 years, Hayne performed as much as 90 percent of the criminal autopsies in Mississippi, which by his own account could approach 1,800 autopsies per year. Over the last two years, The Huffington Post has reported on several other cases in which Hayne and his frequent collaborator Michael West have given questionable testimony or issued forensics reports that led to a wrongful arrest -- most recently in January, with an investigation into the 1997 murder of 39-year-old Kathy Mabry.
In 2007, the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Tyler Edmonds, a 13-year-old convicted of conspiring with his sister to murder his sister’s husband. In that case, Hayne testified that he could tell by the victim's wound pattern that two people held the gun that fired the fatal bullets -- a conclusion other forensic specialists have dismissed as preposterous. In that case, the court’s majority went out of its way to note that the ruling did not disqualify Hayne as an expert witness, and the court has dismissed every challenge to Hayne’s credibility since.
Based in part on Huffington Post investigations, the Mississippi Innocence Project recently completed a long profile of Hayne and filed petitions for post-conviction relief in several cases. Those petitions make a well-documented argument that Hayne, West, and state officials have systematically corrupted Mississippi's murder investigation system for two decades, affecting potentially thousands of convictions. David Parvin was one of the cases in which the Innocence Project filed its dossier on Hayne.
The ruling this week suggests the Mississippi Supreme Court is ready to scrutinize Hayne and the prosecutors who relied on his testimony. In an email response to a Huffington Post inquiry, Mississippi Innocence Project director Tucker Carrington wrote, “Our position is that the Parvin case -- specifically Dr. Hayne's baseless testimony and its admission -- is like his testimony in many others, including those in which we have recently filed for relief. In each we submit that Dr. Hayne's testimony, the bases supporting it, and in many instances his claims about his basic expertise, were similarly flawed. Applying the Court's reasoning today in Parvin to those cases should necessitate the same just result.”
The Supreme Court's use of scare quotes around the word “expert” would suggest that the justices have run out of patience with Hayne and the way the office of Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has continued to defend his outlandish testimony.
The court also took note of a couple aspects of Hayne’s testimony in the Parvin case that fit a pattern of the way he has been used by prosecutors over the years. First, Hayne is known for writing autopsy reports that provide little detail and offer no conclusions or observations. Once Hayne gets on the witness stand, however, he’ll offer damning testimony that doesn’t appear in his reports. The tactic has often caught defense attorneys by surprise. In its ruling this week, the Mississippi Supreme Court noted that Parvin's appeal “maintained that the muzzle-to-target distance and the shot trajectories provided in Hayne’s autopsy report were made ‘without comment, explanation, or support,’ and none of these measurements could be ‘determined by the autopsy report or any of the related scientific tests.’”
In the past, Hayne and prosecutors also have employed a manipulative use of hypotheticals. A prosecutor will ask Hayne if a crime could have happened in a way that contradicts the testimony of the accused. Hayne will reply in the affirmative, which the prosecutor will then tell jurors proves the defendant is lying. On cross examination, Hayne can always point out that he was merely responding to a hypothetical. But the damage with the jury will have been done. And prosecutors then refer back to Hayne’s original testimony in their closing arguments.
In Parvin’s case, the state's highest court appears to have caught on. The Supreme Court opinion explains that based on Hayne’s measurements and observations, prosecutors came up with a “possible scenario” of how the shooting occurred. Though there was no scientific evidence to suggest that this particular scenario was certain -- or even probable -- the jury nevertheless was shown a detailed computer animation based only on Hayne’s approximations -- which Hayne affirmed in his testimony. The court noted that "the only scientific method or principle appearing in the record was the ipse dixit or self-proclaimed accuracy of Hayne."
Until this week, the Mississippi Supreme Court had been deferential toward Hayne. Even in the Tyler Edmonds case, the majority treated Hayne’s testimony as a one-off. In the Parvin case, the court’s tone is far more skeptical, at times almost mocking Hayne.
Several Mississippi officials, including a former state Supreme Court justice, told The Huffington Post in January that Mississippi needs a thorough, comprehensive review of every case in which Hayne or West testified.