Innocence project reviews Hattiesburg cases

Published 8:51 pm Saturday, September 13, 2008

HATTIESBURG (AP) — Of the 80 cases the Mississippi Innocence Project is reviewing for potential forensic fraud, at least two are Forrest County and involve the testimonies of two controversial forensic experts.

The two capital murder cases ended in the 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, who was coroner of Forrest County at the time of the trials.

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W. Tucker Carrington, director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said his office was investigating these cases not because of new DNA evidence, as is the case in most of the investigations, but ‘‘because, first and foremost, they feature the testimony of Dr. Hayne and Dr. West.’’

Both have been under fire for the quality of their work as well as their credentials.

The Innocence Project began its examination of Hayne and West because both testified in two Noxubee County trials that ended in the false 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 men, 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. Recently, he was taken off the state’s list of designated pathologists.

Powers was convicted in 2000 of capital murder and sentenced to death in the slaying of Hattiesburg resident Elizabeth Lafferty.

Lafferty, who was killed in 1998, was shot five times, including three times to the back of her head after Powers attempted to rape her, according to court documents.

West testified how he found Lafferty’s body at the crime scene and he later stated that he sent her body to Hayne for an autopsy. Also during the Power’s trial, West testified that he had worked in the coroner’s office for 15 years, 10 as deputy coroner and five as the county’s head coroner.

West also testified that we was chief medical examiner for Forrest County during his then five-year post as county coroner. West said, at the time of testimony, that he did not have a medical degree.

Court documents show that during jury selection, under questioning by then Assistant District Attorney Bob Helfrich, West stated 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 where defense attorneys filed an ethics charge against West. According to West, the defense attorneys stated that he ‘‘overstated his position and did not follow the standards of terminology.’’

During the trial, Hayne testified that Lafferty died of ‘‘five entrance gunshot wounds’’ to the head. Hayne also testified that Lafferty suffered external injuries to other parts of her body, including the right eye and elbow.

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

Both Hayne and West testified that Puckett 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 Mississippi Supreme Court, Puckett claimed that West should not have been allowed to testify as an ‘‘expert witness in the field of wound patterns.’’ Puckett based his argument on the American Academy of Forensic Science Ethics Committee’s suspension of West in 1993.

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

Asked the relevance of West’s and Hayne’s testimonies in the two cases, Carrington said: ‘‘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,’’ he said.

Powers’ appeal was denied by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 2003.

In 2005, the Supreme Court declined to hear Puckett’s post-conviction appeal because no new evidence was presented to lead to a new trial. The U.S. Supreme Court also refused to hear Puckett’s appeal.

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.’’

Two local prosecutors say they believe Hayne can provide expert testimony.

Forrest-Perry County District Attorney Jon Mark Weathers said he still had about ‘‘several dozen’’ cases where Hayne performed forensic pathology work.

‘‘If the cases reach trial, he’ll be the one to testify,’’ Weathers said.

He said the remaining cases had already been assigned to Hayne prior to his removal from the state’s designated pathologist list.

‘‘I’ve never had any problem with Dr. Hayne; I’ve always found him to be qualified to render a competent opinion on the cause of death,’’ Weathers said.

He said he and his staff will adhere to state officials’ decision to use temporary Jackson-based services of Forensic Medical Inc. of Nashville while the state searches for Hayne’s replacement.

District Attorney Hal Kittrell said his office has yet to use the state’s temporary forensic pathology services. Like Weathers, Kittrell said he has remaining cases that involve Hayne.

‘‘If there’s any murder cases on our docket, my guess is that Dr. Hayne will be involved,’’ said Kittrell, the prosecutor for Lamar, Marion, Pearl River, Jefferson Davis and Lawrence counties. ‘‘I do anticipate on him being back on the stand with us on cases that we have outstanding.’’