Last week, Georgetown Law Innocence Project hosted a presentation in Hart Auditorium with Radley Balko, an investigative journalist and senior editor of Reason Magazine. He previously worked as a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and has published articles cited in Supreme Court opinions.
Balko’s focus is on police misconduct, and especially wrongful convictions. His presentation last Wednesday discussed his investigation into a former Mississippi medical examiner named Steven Hayne, and, more generally, the troubled state of forensics in a number of state judicial systems.
Mr. Hayne’s story was a particularly gruesome account of the potential for corruption in the coroner and forensic evidence fields.
“[Hayne] operated out of a basement, which had been referred to as ‘a butcher shop…a sushi shop,’” said Balko. “[The investigator traveling there] had been prepared for the worst, and he told me nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.”
“They had 10-15 bodies at once, and they were smoking cigars…ashes were falling into open bodies…. This is how they did autopsies in Mississippi for a little over 20 years, including cause of death for criminal trials…for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state.”
Where most coroners are supposed to perform roughly 250 autopsies a year, Hayne said he did closer to 1,500. “He claimed, in court, that he was some sort of forensic super hero.”
“Over that twenty years ever institution that should have noticed this failed to do so. The state bar did nothing, the judges did nothing,” continued Balko.
“[for] Mississippi public defenders…it’s a part time job…you make your money in private practice and the only game in town for wrongful death suits, etc. is Hayne, so are you going to go after him in these criminal cases, when you need to rely on him for the cases where you make your money? Far too few of them went after him.”
Balko also played a series of videos, taken by Hayne, showing the clear falsification of evidence. In one video, a young woman was scratched repeatedly with a mold of a defendant’s teeth to cause abrasions to appear on her cheek. The defendant in that case is still on death row, and those teeth marks were the only physical evidence in the case.
“Mr. Balko’s thoughts on the criminal justice system’s pervasive abuse of so called expert witnesses was thought provoking for the students, and I think these opinions will be great for those entering the system through capacities as public defenders and prosecutors,” said Darren Halverson, 3L and president of Georgetown Innocence Project.
“One of the key ways of changing the inertia of the criminal justice system is to change the baseline assumptions that the system is built on, for example, the powerful assumption that the system “convicted people always were guilty of something.” Mr. Balko helped to challenge these assumptions in a powerful way.”
Georgetown Innocence Project consists of a series of case teams who work to investigate the innocence claims of incarcerated people. It is part of the larger Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the country-wide program. The central focus of the organization is to investigate the potential openings for Habeas Corpus relief for those who lacked access to DNA evidence at the time of their trials, and further supplementing those claims through case team investigations. However, the organization has also expanded to include petitions for pardons to governor’s offices.
Georgetown Innocence Project has a new website. It can be found at http://georgetownlaw.orgsync.com/org/innocenceproject/home. The group seeks new members for its case teams at the beginning of each school year.