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Friday, January 2, 2009

Officials describe search for state's top forensic pathologist as tough

Officials are moving closer to hiring Mississippi's first medical examiner in more than a decade.It is progressing," said Sam Howell, director of the State Crime Lab. "They are looking at some candidates to be interviewed."

The medical examiner's post has been vacant since the mid-1990s. During that time, Dr. Steven Hayne performed most of the autopsies.

On Aug. 4, Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson sent out a letter, removing Hayne from the list of approved pathologists.

Simpson said then that the state planned to hire a medical examiner for the $200,000-a-year position.

That salary may sound like plenty, but a number of medical examiners in other states earn well more than $300,000.

Dr. Michael Baden, world-renowned pathologist and former chief medical examiner for New York City, noted that salaries for medical examiners have increased greatly in recent decades but that $200,000 should be enough because Mississippi has a lower standard of living.

The annual salary could possibly be augmented through an association with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, he said.

But that also could lead to a potential conflict of interest if an allegation of medical malpractice happened to arise in a death case at UMC, he said.

There's also the matter of funding.

Earlier this year, Mississippi lawmakers allocated $500,000 in one-time money toward the medical examiner's office.

Lawmakers have said they'll continue to support the office, but state funds will be harder to come by during this recession.

While Mississippi continues to search for a medical examiner, the state has contracted with Forensic Medical Inc. of Nashville to conduct autopsies here.

In August, the state removed Hayne from the list of approved pathologists after the New York-based Innocence Project accused him of sloppy work and filed a complaint with the state Board of Medical Licensure, calling on the board to strip Hayne of his medical license.

After examining the allegations, the Board of Medical Licensure sided with Hayne, who has said he is the victim of a witch hunt by the Innocence Project and other death penalty opponents. Hayne is now suing project officials for defamation.

Hayne is being sued himself, along with Hattiesburg dentist Michael West, for their testimony in the 1992 rape and slaying of a 3-year-old girl that led to the death sentence for Kennedy Brewer.

Brewer, who is suing the pair for $18 million, was freed after spending 15 years in prison for a crime authorities now say DNA shows he never committed. Another man is now charged with that crime.

In Brewer's 1995 trial, West identified 19 human bite marks on the toddler's body that he concluded could have been made only by Brewer. Defense experts said the marks could have been made by insects after the body was dumped in water. [Mark Godsey]

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