Balko on Mississippi's Forensic Pathology System:

Radley Balko has an excellent piece in the October Reason on the Corey Maye case. Thanks to Instapundit, I've discovered that the piece is now online.

I'm writing an article on expert evidence under Daubert/FRE 702 in which, among other things, I call for the privatization of forensic science services. There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to go about such privatization, and Mississippi seems to have done it the wrong way: "Mississippi's forensic pathology system is, in the words of one medical examiner I spoke with, 'a mess.' The state has no official examiners. Instead, prosecutors solicit them from a pool of vaguely official private practitioners to perform autopsies in homicide cases."

In contrast to a properly designed system, in which such practitioners would be subject to periodic tests of proficiency and honesty, Balko's account suggests that the Mississippi judicial system exerts virtually no quality control over its forensic pathologists. The result, according to Balko, is convictions, including perhaps Maye's, based on highly dubious evidence. Balko tells me he is working on a follow-up to this aspect of the Maye story. Meanwhile, his entire article is well worth reading.

William Oliver (mail) (www):
I look forward to your article on the privatization of forensic services. I am a forensic pathologist, and have seen both systems. I have, in general, not been impressed with private systems. While privatization has the benefit to the pathologist of higher income and greater control, it also has some significant drawbacks, not the least of which is the loss of sovereign immunity. Forensic pathologists are increasingly the targets of lawsuits by family members. Private systems are not immune to political influence, but have added issues with monetary pressures. Philosophically, the reasons to have civil service forensic pathology services are the same as the reasons to have civil service policing and military. While some libertarians believe that all services should be private, including police and military, there are some services that should not be left to mercenaries.
9.25.2006 11:18pm
You might check out problems in the Houston Texas crime lab - big issues with evidence handling including DNA processing ended up causing it to be decertified for a while, and, the coroner's office which had missing and misindentified bodies and made up reports.
9.26.2006 2:26am
CDU (mail):
While the actions (and qualifications) of the medical examiner on this case are pretty appalling, the article seems contradictory when it comes to the subject of SWAT teams. After going on for a couple of paragraphs about the supposed evils of SWAT teams with paramilitary training it goes on to cite say that the raid wasn't conducted by a SWAT team at all, but by a scratch group of untrained officers.

Agree with the second point, not the first. A properly trained team would have been more likely to get Maye the message that they were in fact police officers, probably avoiding both the death of Officer Jones and the prosecution of Maye.
9.26.2006 2:37am
CDU: Read it again. Balko ably makes the point that even with properly trained SWAT teams, raids like this can cause terrible collateral damage. The fact that Jones and his untrained team used SWAT tactics only heightened the possibility of something going wrong.
9.26.2006 2:41am
Yes, CDU: Read it again.
9.26.2006 3:23am
Anderson (mail) (www):
Balko's done quite a lot of study on how even trained SWAT teams ratchet up the violence on what should be relatively mundane situations; if you poke around his blog, you should be able to find his compilation of incidents nationwide.
9.26.2006 11:36am
William Oliver (mail) (www):

I'm familiar with Houston. That's not a function of civil service versus private.

The important thing is that there is a reason that the civil service was created -- remember that we did not have a federal civil service until the assassination of President Garfield. Until that time, virtually all government services were handled by the private sector, which became a spoils system.

Contrary to the beliefs of some, private contracting increases rather than decreases the influence of politics into what should be the nonpartisan part of government service. There is a case going on in Florida right now where a Medical Examiner will not have his contract renewed because he made a politcally incorrect diagnosis. The next contractor will likely be more malleable. The message there is clear -- base your work on politics rather than medicine. I am not sure that this should be the basis for forensic medical decision making, though folk who want privatization will get exactly that.
9.26.2006 2:00pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
Many states or counties do not have adequate forensic pathology. In New York state each county decides what type of system it will use. Many use a coroner system where the County Coroner decides which deaths need investigation and who would do the investigation. Often the coroners are mortuaries. Sometimes the coroners hire physicians who are general practitioners, not forensic pathologists, to perform autopsies. This led to many failures of justice, including a famous case where a woman from Albany killed multiple children. This was published in the medical literature as a familial propensity for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The woman moved to Syracuse (which had recently adopted a medical examiner system) and had another baby die. The medical examiner proved the infant was suffocated. If Albany had a medical examiner system, the woman would have been imprisoned after the first infanticide.
9.26.2006 9:07pm
William Oliver

It isn't a function of civil service vs private, but it does show all the stuff that can go wrong with inadequate supervision, standards, testing, training, etc.
9.27.2006 1:34am
concerned citizen (mail):
If you're going to look into the performing of autopsies in MS, it would be worth your while to pay attention to Dr. Steven Hayne. (The attention he has recieved in the Maye case has thus far missed the mark.) Particular attention should be paid to the number of autopsies he claims to perform in a year/the amount of time that he spends on each one/the plausability of the resulting arithmetic. Bear in mind - when one is paid based on the volume of autopsies performed, there is a focus on quantity not quality.

Some in the MS medical community have been frustrated by this for years. Some interesting research may already exist... hmmm...
9.28.2006 1:05am