Monday, September 8, 2008

Embattled Experts Key to Contested Verdicts

Innocence Project taking closer look

September 8, 2008

Earlesha Butler Jackson Clairon Ledger Jackson, MS

Of the 80 cases the Mississippi Innocence Project is reviewing for potential forensic fraud, at least two are Forrest County death-row cases that involved testimony from two of the state's controversial forensic experts.

The cases ended in the capital murder convictions of Stephen Elliott Powers and Larry Matthew Puckett.

Both cases included testimony by the state's former primary forensic pathologist, Dr. Steven Hayne, and Dr. Michael West, a Hattiesburg-based dentist and Forrest County's coroner at the time of the trials.

W. Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said in an e-mail his office was investigating these cases "because, first and foremost, they feature the testimony of Dr. Hayne and Dr. West," both of whom have been under fire questioning the quality of their work as well as their credentials.

"Our position is that, based on what we learned about their roles in the Noxubee County cases, any cases in which either doctor testified is automatically relevant for additional inquiry. We will not only come to understand the effect of their testimony on individual cases but also understand the breadth and scope of the damage that they have caused to the state's criminal justice system," Carrington said.

The state's Innocence Project began its examination of Hayne and West because both testified in two Noxubee County trials that ended in the wrongful convictions of two men in separate child murders.

Hayne performed the autopsies in the cases and West testified that bite marks on the victims were made by the men.

The two, Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, were released from prison earlier this year after DNA testing and a confession from another man.

At least 60 to 70 of the cases the Innocence Project is now looking at involve the testimony of Hayne, who has handled most of the state's autopsies in the past 14 years. He was recently removed from the state's list of designated pathologists.

Powers was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for the June 1998 slaying of Hattiesburg resident Elizabeth Lafferty. He was convicted in December 2000 of shooting Lafferty five times, including three times to the back of her head, after he attempted to rape her.

West testified he responded to the scene of Lafferty's murder on Mamie Street on June 14, 1998, as Forrest County coroner. He said he examined the body and later sent it to Hayne for an autopsy.

At trial, West testified that he had worked in the coroner's office for 15 years and that he was chief medical examiner for Forrest County during his then five-year post as county coroner. West said he did not have a medical degree.

Court documents show that during the trial's juror examination, West said under questioning by then-Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich that he was a doctor of dentistry and that he had been suspended from the American Board of Forensic Odontology in 1993. The suspension, he testified, stemmed from a 1992 murder case in which defense attorneys filed an ethics charge against West, alleging he did not follow the "standards of terminology."

During the trial, Hayne testified that he performed an autopsy on Lafferty and that she died of "five entrance gunshot wounds" to the head.

Puckett was sentenced to death in the 1995 slaying of Rhonda Griffis, 28, of the Sunrise community. Puckett was convicted of beating Griffis to death after he sexually assaulted her on Oct. 14, 1995, according to court documents.

Both Hayne and West testified during Puckett's trial that he had "wound patterns" on his back consistent with that of a "club" - the instrument prosecutors said Puckett used to beat Griffis to death. The victim's husband had arrived home when Puckett was still at the scene, disarmed him and hit him with the club.

In an appeal to the state's Supreme Court, Puckett claimed that West should not have been allowed to testify as an "expert witness in the field of wound patterns."

Puckett also asserted that his attorney should have hired "an independent pathologist" to examine the evidence and general findings of Hayne.

The state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have declined to hear appeals from Puckett.

An appeal by Powers was denied by the state high court in 2003.

Carrington said the cases will be examined "to make an accurate assessment" of testimonies provided by Hayne and West.

"This does not mean that as a matter of fact or law that their testimony in these or any case is automatically erroneous or led to an unjust conviction," he said. "In order to make an accurate assessment on a case-by-case basis, each case needs to be examined individually."

Calls to Hayne's attorney, Dale Danks Jr. of Jackson, were not returned.

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