The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mississippi Supreme Court rules for death row inmate Jeffrey Havard

Placeholder while article actions load

This week, the Mississippi Supreme Court unanimously ruled that death row inmate Jeffrey Havard can proceed with an evidentiary hearing to challenge his murder conviction. Havard was convicted in 2002 of killing his girlfriend’s 6-month-old daughter. Havard claims the girl slipped from his arms as he was giving her a bath and hit her head. (More on the case here.)

Controversial medical examiner Steven Hayne concluded that the girl had died of Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), a diagnosis that is also highly controversial. Hayne also claimed to have found evidence of sexual abuse, a finding that allowed prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

As I’ve written here before, Hayne has since come under fire for his improbable testimony, sloppy practices and herculean workload. He was effectively fired as the state’s quasi-official medical examiner in 2008, although he still periodically testifies in civil cases, in old cases in which the defendant was given a new trial, and for defense attorneys. Hayne has since reversed part of his testimony in the Havard case, although as noted here at The Watch, he has still given highly suspect testimony in other SBS cases.

The ruling this week doesn’t grant Havard a new trial, but it does give him permission to ask for an evidentiary hearing on the scientific legitimacy of the Shaken Baby Syndrome diagnosis. A favorable ruling in that hearing could then result in a new trial. Since Havard’s conviction, SBS has come under fire as new research has called its underlying premises into doubt. This ruling basically acknowledges as much. But the court rejected Havard’s claims related to Hayne’s credibility as an expert witness.

While the court’s ruling on SBS is correct — and encouraging, given how difficult it can be to get appeals courts to revisit convictions based on science later shown to be flawed — focusing solely on the SBS ruling shows that the Mississippi Supreme Court still isn’t ready to acknowledge and account for the full extent of Hayne’s corruption of the state’s criminal justice system.