Another Mississippi outrage: Young mother faces life in prison for stillborn child

ProPublica reporter Nina Martin has written a long and exceptional article about a disgraceful case in Mississippi that touches on two issues we’ve recently covered here at The Watch — the persecution of women accused of ingesting drugs while pregnant, and the dubious expertise of longtime Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne.

Rennie Gibbs’s daughter, Samiya, was a month premature when she simultaneously entered the world and left it, never taking a breath. To experts who later examined the medical record, the stillborn infant’s most likely cause of death was also the most obvious: the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

But within days of Samiya’s delivery in November 2006, Steven Hayne, Mississippi’s de facto medical examiner at the time, came to a different conclusion. Autopsy tests had turned up traces of a cocaine byproduct in Samiya’s blood, and Hayne declared her death a homicide, caused by “cocaine toxicity.”

In early 2007, a Lowndes County grand jury indicted Gibbs, a 16-year-old black teen, for “depraved heart murder” — defined under Mississippi law as an act “eminently dangerous to others…regardless of human life.” By smoking crack during her pregnancy, the indictment said, Gibbs had “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” caused the death of her baby. The maximum sentence: life in prison.

Seven years and much legal wrangling later, Gibbs could finally go on trial this spring — part of a wave of “fetal harm” cases across the country in recent years that pit the rights of the mother against what lawmakers, health care workers, prosecutors, judges, jurors, and others view as the rights of the unborn child.

Martin’s well-reported story includes all the necessary background on Hayne, including some links to my prior reporting. But I’ll add a bit more:

First, the prosecutor in this case is Forrest Allgood, the notorious Mississippi DA who prosecuted both Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks in the early 1990s, two innocent men, also based on testimony from Hayne and the charlatan bite mark specialist Michael West. Brewer did time on death row. Brooks spent the better part of two decades in prison. Both were exonorated and released in 2008. Allgood was also the DA who prosecuted 13-year-old Tyler Edmonds based on yet more dubious testimony from Hayne. And he’s the prosecutor who put Eddie Lee Howard on death row, again due to testimony from Hayne and West. (Allgood continued to defend and use West as an expert witness long after West had been thoroughly discredited. During Howard’s trial, he compared growing criticism of West’s quackery to the Catholic church attempting to burn Copernicus “because he dared to say that the planets didn’t revolve around the earth.” Allgood apparently doesn’t have the best grasp on history, either.)

Allgood and Hayne go way back. Lloyd White, who served as Mississippi state medical examiner in the early 1990s, told me in 2007 that when he was in office — and at least in theory was in charge of overseeing state autopsies in criminal cases — Allgood once removed a body from his lab without his permission. White wasn’t ready to tell Allgood what he wanted to hear about how the woman had died, so Allgood had the body taken from White’s office and delivered to Hayne, who gave Allgood the expert opinion he was seeking.

When babies die in Mississippi, the state’s prosecutors seem particularly determined to see that someone goes to prison for it, even if there isn’t much evidence of a crime. In the past, more often than not, they would turn to Hayne. Currently, two men sit on Mississippi’s death row due almost exclusively to testimony from Steven Hayne — Jeffrey Havard and Devin Bennett. In both cases, other medical examiners have since questioned the quality of Hayne’s autopsies and the credibility of his testimony in court.

Back in 1990, Allgood won a murder conviction against Sabrina Butler, a borderline mentally retarded woman whom Allgood accused of murdering her infant son. Butler was initially sentenced to death. Hayne wasn’t the official medical examiner in that case, but sources in Mississippi have told me that he did advise Allgood and the medical examiner. The Mississippi Supreme Court threw out Butler’s conviction in 1992, citing prosecutorial misconduct by Allgood. Butler was retried in 1995. At that trial, the medical examiner admitted to making some mistakes. Other medical examiners testified that the child likely died of kidney failure, or possibly from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Butler was acquitted.

In 2008, prosecutors in Madison County were forced to drop murder charges against Hattie Douglass, a woman who had been arrested, charged, jailed for more than a year, and lost custody of her children after Hayne determined that her infant son had died of alcohol poisoning. Toxicology reports on bloodwork Hayne had sent to a lab after his autopsy showed the child to have a blood-alcohol saturation of .4, enough to kill just about anyone. A blood-alcohol level of .4 should have struck Hayne as way outside the norm. Indeed, subsequent tests showed a much more reasonable .02, consistent with Douglass’s claim to have given the infant some cough syrup before putting him down for a nap. For whatever reason, Hayne took only the .4 reading to prosecutors, who then had Douglass arrested. Leroy Riddick, the former state medical examiner for Alabama, later reviewed Hayne’s work, determined his diagnosis was absurd, and postulated that the child died of interstitial pneumonia and a related viral heart infection.

Hayne and the prosecutors blamed the whole fiasco on ExperTox, the toxicology lab in Texas that performed the tests. The lab blamed Hayne’s sloppy methods, and lab officials told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that they had already stopped working with Mississippi prosecutors because, “We didn’t feel as comfortable with samples coming from that state as we did with other states.” That jibes with what one former director of the Mississippi crime lab told me about Hayne: “I reached a point where we collected all evidence at the scene, because we couldn’t trust them to collect and preserve it properly. I know for sure that there were frequently [test] tubes coming from Hayne that had the wrong names on them.”

This is just a sampling of troubling cases. (Here’s another.) But I also want to address one more passage from Martin’s article. It’s a quote from Hayne’s attorney.

“Given the number of autopsies he’s performed, there’s certainly going to be some errors,” Cory said in an interview last week. “But a lot of the criticisms don’t turn out to be fair. Just because he’s been criticized in some cases doesn’t mean there’s any inherent unreliability in his findings. Certainly Dr. Hayne would want the truth to come out.”

This misstates what happened in Mississippi during Hayne’s reign. Hayne performed the vast majority of autopsies in Mississippi for nearly 20 years precisely because he provided opinions and testimonies that prosecutors found favorable. It was all by design. When state medical examiners attempted to rein Hayne in, the state’s district attorneys and coroners rallied behind him. They in fact forced two state medical examiners to resign.

As for “inherent unreliability,” I’d submit that when an expert witness has shown that he’s willing to give preposterous testimony that is unsupported by science, when he has spent most of his career working with a proven fraud like Michael West (including co-authoring articles on forensic analysis), when multiple defendants convicted because of his testimony have since been exonorated or acquitted, and when he has admitted to lying about his credentials, not only should his expertise be questioned in cases where his testimony in and of itself is absurd, his opinions should also be dismissed in those cases where they aren’t entirely implausible, or in instances where he was contradicted by a medical examiner who doesn’t have his baggage.

In other words, Hayne shouldn’t be treated as just another expert. When someone’s freedom or life is on the line, his disagreements with qualified medical examiners shouldn’t be viewed as an honest disagreement between two credible professionals, but as a disagreement between a credible professional and a man whose history provides little reason to afford him the presumption of integrity.

Even if Hayne were right about what killed Rennia Gibbs’ daughter, the Mississippi law that allows prosecutors to charge women with murder for having miscarriages or delivering stillborn babies is abominable. But in this case, the unjustness of the law is compounded by the way Allgood is attempting to enforce it. As Martin points out in her article, specialists with far more credibility and expertise than Hayne have since criticized his diagnosis.

The law itself needs to be repealed. But this case is also another desperate cry for Mississippi to take a thorough inventory of the damage Hayne, West, Allgood and their contemporaries may have done to the state’s criminal justice system.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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