Opinion writer

I have a new book out this week. It is at heart an investigation of how Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne and the forensic dentist Michael West dominated the death investigation system in that state (and to a lesser extent, Louisiana) for the better part of 20 years. The book also looks more generally at the history of forensics and the coroner system in America, and critiques how forensic analysis is used in court today.

In writing the book, my co-author Tucker Carrington and I found far more examples of malfeasance on the part of Hayne and West than we could fit into our manuscript. We ended up cutting quite a few cases that I think still deserve to be heard. So I’ll be posting some of the “director’s cut” material here over the next several weeks.

The first story is the case of Tina Funderburk, a mentally ill woman who was incarcerated for years without a trial because of a flawed autopsy report and a criminal-justice system ill-equipped to handle her disability.

In 2003, the skeletonized body of Funderburk’s daughter — 3-year-old Reina Russell — turned up in a swampy area behind the Greyhound bus station in Jackson, Miss. Funderburk, who lived in New York, was a paranoid schizophrenic. New York law enforcement authorities initially claimed that Funderburk admitted to killing her daughter by suffocating her. But later, they could produce no documentation of any confession. When she was extradited to Mississippi, Funderburk told police that after leaving the bus in Jackson with her daughter and young son, she saw a helicopter and heard police sirens. Thinking someone was chasing her, she fled into a nearby woods with her son and daughter. When she and the boy emerged later, she realized she had left her daughter behind.

Still believing she was being followed, Funderburk didn’t return to the woods to find her daughter. Instead, she and her son returned to Brooklyn. When they arrived, the father of the girl realized his daughter was missing and notified police. In September 2003, a forensic anthropologist determined that “due to the completeness of the decomposition” of Reina’s remains, she couldn’t determine either the cause or the manner of the girl’s death. Two months later, Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne claimed he could determine both. Hayne concluded that the Reina’s death was a homicide and the manner was “consistent with compression of the head and consistent with suffocation.” Funderburk was arrested and charged with murder.

In 2008, New York medical examiner Michael Baden reviewed Hayne’s autopsy for the Innocence Project in New York. Baden found no evidence to indicate a homicide or suffocation and speculated that Hayne’s conclusion was based more on police reports than on physical evidence. In a 2012 deposition, Hayne would later admit that his diagnosis of strangulation was based on the reports from New York police that Funderburk had confessed, not on anything found in his autopsy. While forensic pathologists sometimes consult with police before doing an autopsy, the practice is generally frowned upon. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends that forensic pathologists “investigate cooperatively with, but independent from, law enforcement and prosecutors. The parallel investigation promotes neutral and objective medical assessment of the cause and manner of death.”

Moreover, when a medical examiner gives a cause and manner of death, the implication is that these were both based on the doctor’s expertise in what he or she found during the autopsy. To simply reiterate what is in the police report takes advantage of the trust we put in a medical examiner’s expertise and authority. The only reason Hayne was later forced to admit his lack of thoroughness in this case is that the police reports he relied upon turned out to be incorrect.

A state psychiatrist eventually diagnosed Funderburk with paranoid schizophrenia. She was treated for three months at a mental hospital but then returned to the Hinds County jail in Miss. Because she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Funderburke couldn’t be tried for the murder of her daughter. Because the mental hospital said her illness was under control, she couldn’t stay at the facility. But because of Hayne’s autopsy concluding that Funderburk’s daughter had been murdered, Funderburk couldn’t be freed. So she had to stay in prison. In January 2012, the Clarion-Ledger reported that Funderburk was still sitting in the Hinds County jail. Only after that article was published did Mississippi officials finally move for her release. By that time she had served more than eight years in jail without ever getting a trial.