Radley Balko has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal about a Mississippi medical examiner named Steven Hayne. Balko argues that Hayne is an incompetent and unqualified medical examiner who has no business testifying in criminal cases.
The average reader of Balko’s op-ed is likely to conclude that Balko is simply a disinterested journalist writing about a questionable medical examiner. That’s because Wall Street Journal readers weren’t told that Radley Balko has an ulterior motive to discredit Dr. Hayne.
Specifically, Dr. Hayne was one of the most critical witnesses in the trial of Cory Maye, a Mississippi inmate whose efforts to overturn his murder conviction have been a central focus of Balko’s professional life for some time. In short, although he writes about many topics, Balko is known primarily for his work done on behalf of Cory Maye.
Despite the centrality of Dr. Hayne’s testimony to the Cory Maye case, Balko does not mention one word about Cory Maye in today’s op-ed. This omission gives Balko’s piece a false veneer of extra credibility, because it appears to be the work of a neutral journalist, rather than what it actually is: a piece by an activist with a longstanding and well-established point of view regarding Dr. Hayne.
The omission is very curious, because Cory Maye is the only reason Balko ever became interested in Steven Hayne. And Balko has told readers that he wants to see Dr. Hayne discredited because that will help Cory Maye. But the readers of today’s piece are told none of this.
Balko’s initial interest in Dr. Hayne was wholly due to the fact that Dr. Hayne testified against Maye. Indeed, Balko has made it clear that he first began investigating Dr. Hayne because of the importance of Dr. Hayne’s testimony in the Maye trial. In December 2005, Balko wrote:
Hayne’s testimony was crucial in securing Maye’s conviction. His testimony about the trajectory of the bullet found in Jones’ body cast doubt on Maye’s version of how the raid transpired. Maye’s current lawyer, Bob Evans, thinks jurors dismissed just about everything Cory Maye said after hearing Hayne’s testimony.
In that same post, Balko first mentioned Dr. Hayne’s questionable testimony in an unrelated case — testimony that Balko discusses in today’s op-ed. The post makes it clear that Balko became interested in that testimony because it might have some relevance to the Cory Maye case.
Thereafter, Balko continued to write about Dr. Hayne in connection with the Maye case. For example, in October 2006, Balko wrote a lengthy article about the Cory Maye case — and devoted considerable space to attacking Dr. Hayne’s credentials. Indeed, in the Mississippi Supreme Court case discussed in Balko’s WSJ op-ed, a concurring opinion quoted from the portion of Balko’s article discussing Dr. Hayne. In January of this year, Balko noted that fact on his blog, and wrote that he hoped it might be positive news for Maye:
Here’s hoping Hayne gets continued scrutiny from the state’s supreme court going forward, including when they sit to hear Cory’s case.
And just a few days ago, Balko touted his upcoming Reason article on Dr. Hayne (which today’s op-ed is based on) and again mentioned the fact that Dr. Hayne did the autopsy in the Maye case.
Yet not one word concerning Maye made its way into today’s op-ed. Indeed, in the concluding paragraph of the op-ed, Balko writes:
The state [of Mississippi] needs to revisit every criminal case in which Dr. Hayne has testified.
But Balko doesn’t mention that one of those criminal cases is the Maye case — a case in which Balko has personally championed the defendant’s innocence.
That’s something that WSJ readers should have been told.
Regardless of whether this information was omitted by Balko or by an editor, it was important information that should have appeared in the article. After all, a reader may well respond differently to an article if the reader knows the author is an admitted activist, rather than a neutral journalist.
For example: Balko pointedly says in his op-ed that “Dr. Hayne declined repeated requests from me to comment.” That might sound vaguely suspicious to a reader who thinks Balko came to the story without preconceived notions. The reader might have a very different view if he knew that Balko has openly questioned Hayne’s credibility for months, on a case that has been very important to Balko’s career.
Similarly, as I show in a companion post, Balko’s zeal on behalf of Maye has led him to (I assume unintentionally) misstate the facts of a critical court precedent. A reader might be more skeptical of his facts in this piece, knowing that Balko’s bias has affected the accuracy of his assertions in other contexts.
By the way, I am not drawing any conclusions regarding the accuracy of the allegations in Balko’s op-ed. I simply don’t know enough about Dr. Hayne to comment.
Nor am I in any way disparaging Mr. Balko’s decision to work on behalf of Maye. I am most certainly not arguing that it is somehow improper for someone like Balko to become an activist on behalf of someone like Cory Maye. Quite to the contrary, I have explicitly approved of the involvement of committed activists working on behalf of convicted defendants. Very often it is only through the efforts of such activists that an inmate’s innocence comes to light, and I respect very much any person who devotes their time to such work, if they truly believe that they may be helping a genuinely innocent person.
But if one of them writes an article directly relevant to their cause, they need to disclose that fact.
P.S. I am obviously not accusing Balko of any longstanding effort to hide the connection between Dr. Hayne and the Cory Maye case. As the links and quotes above show, Balko has discussed the connection explicitly on many occasions, and the involvement of Dr. Hayne is familiar to anyone who has closely followed the facts of the Maye case.
But Balko’s op-ed takes the issue of Dr. Hayne’s reputation to a wider audience, which likely includes many people who are unfamiliar with the minute details of the Cory Maye case. As such, they should have been told of the connections between the author, the subject of the piece, and an inmate on whose behalf the author has extensively worked.
UPDATE x2: As Balko makes clear in his post, which I linked in the first update, he and I have had public disagreements in the past. The overwhelming majority of my readers already know about these disagreements, and they are referenced in comments on this and related posts on this site. If I were publishing this post in the Wall Street Journal, though, I would be sure to mention these past disagreements. I would also mention that I am a prosecutor who puts medical examiners on the stand at trial — another fact that regular readers already know.
UPDATE x3: I initially wrote that “Balko’s interest in Dr. Hayne was wholly due to the fact that Dr. Hayne testified against Maye. Indeed, Balko has made it clear that he first began investigating Dr. Hayne because of the importance of Dr. Hayne’s testimony in the Maye trial.” When taken out of context, the first sentence could be read to imply that even now, Balko has no other interest in Hayne beyond Maye. I think it’s clear I don’t think that, but it’s best to be clear. So, I have changed the first sentence to read “Balko’s initial interest in Dr. Hayne was wholly due to the fact that Dr. Hayne testified against Maye.” That is what I meant to say, as the sentence following it (and the rest of my post) makes clear. Thanks to Christoph for pointing this out.
UPDATE x4: I have a new post which gives another possible interpretation for why Dr. Hayne might have testified the way he did in the Edmonds case cited by Balko.
UPDATE x5: I have read Balko’s Reason piece on Hayne. My reactions here.
UPDATE x6 2-23-09: Having had this controversy revisited by a Radley Balko comment on my blog recently, I have re-read this post. If I rewrote the post today, I would probably change one thing: instead of saying “the main reason” in the title, I would have said “an important reason.” Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty good post.