Following up on my lengthy post yesterday raising some questions about Radley Balko’s article “Manufacturing Guilt?”:
This story at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger sets forth Dr. Hayne’s explanation for the appearance of the abrasion on Haley Oliveaux’s cheek:
Brandon pathologist Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy in Mississippi, vehemently denies the suspicion that bite-mark expert Dr. Michael West of Hattiesburg did anything to tamper with the child’s cheek to produce the marks. “This is so patently absurd, it’s ludicrous,” Hayne said…
Hayne said the abrasion “was there before. It just became more evident. We see that all the time.”
Balko wrote a post on Friday that bitterly mocked Hayne’s explanation:
If by “we,” Hayne means he and West, he may well be correct. If by “we” he means he and other medical examiners, he’s flat wrong. The experts I consulted with for the article say that abrasions form immediately after they’re inflicted. They don’t appear, or become more apparent, hours or days after death. That can sometimes happen with bruising, but not with an abrasion, which is what we see on Oliveaux’s cheek.
I’m not sure Balko’s experts are the final word on the matter. In my previous post, I noted that, of the three experts consulted by Balko, one had already been hired by the defense, another was a previous critic of West’s who somehow divined from the video that West had intentionally caused the abrasion, and a third was a forensic odontologist who declined to answer a question of mine about the coloring of the abrasion because he isn’t a forensic pathologist.
Meanwhile, I found this, written by Edward O. Uthman, a pathologist who is both a diplomate of the National Board of Medical Examiners, and a diplomate in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology with the American Board of Pathology:
Abrasion is a friction injury removing superficial layers of skin, allowing serum to exude and form a crust. Abrasions may not be visible on wet skin; therefore, an abrasion not apparent when a body is first examined may appear the next day, after the wet body has had a chance to dry out in the morgue refrigerator.
Is this the explanation for the change in appearance of Haley Oliveaux’s cheek? Haley drowned at about 10:30 a.m. on December 18, 1993. The initial footage of her body, showing no abrasion, was filmed that very same evening. The subsequent footage, showing an abrasion on her cheek, was filmed the next day — presumably after the body of Haley, a drowning victim, had a chance to dry out in Dr. Hayne’s morgue refrigerator. [UPDATE: See UPDATE x3 below for skepticism from the doctor himself about this theory.]
I will send Dr. Uthman an e-mail with links to Balko’s article and my post from yesterday, and ask him his thoughts about the appearance of this abrasion. If he responds, I’ll report what he tells me — either way it cuts.
P.S. Balko also says:
Moreover, even giving Hayne and West the benefit of the doubt on the cheek mark that appears between the first and second days of the examination, the last 20 minutes of the video show West repeatedly jamming the dental mold into Oliveaux’s body, over and over, more than 50 times. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single forensics professional—other than Hayne or West—who would argue that this is an acceptable way of analyzing forensic evidence.
Based on the fact that even the prosecution’s expert found their procedure to be improper, my guess is that Balko is right about this. But if you give them the benefit of the doubt on the cheek mark, and merely accuse them of improper procedure, that certainly robs his story of most of its shock value.
If they didn’t create the bite marks, then Balko’s story becomes a piece of evidence suggesting the lack of professionalism of Hayne and West — and that’s valuable, to be sure — but the story is not what was initially claimed. I’m willing to wait for the longer article to make a final judgment, but I remain unconvinced that the darkest implications of Balko’s article are necessarily true.
If you haven’t read my post from yesterday, please read it now.
UPDATE: I should note that I’m not an expert in this area and I don’t claim this is the explanation; I merely note the evidence out there that might support it.
While I’m not an expert, reader Mike K (while not a pathologist) is a court-certified expert in medical matters who has spent a lot of time in autopsies. I commend to you this very interesting comment he left yesterday. Read it all but note particularly this point:
I’ve seen bite marks (usually on living victims) and you can’t produce real bite marks on a dead body with a plaster impression. Of course, someone can call something a bite mark that isn’t. Second, I don’t see how you can create a post-mortem bruise or abrasion that looks real. I haven’t tried it but skin after death is white and slippage can occur fairly early depending on temperature.
Then again, Mike K says in comments below that the “drying out” theory sounds odd to him.
I look forward to hearing from Dr. Uthman.
UPDATE x2: Dr. Uthman has responded. I’m awaiting permission to quote him. He wants to talk further but is skeptical of the “drying” theory.
UDPATE x3: Here is Dr. Uthman’s reply:
Interesting case. I think I would tend to agree with Balko. For one thing, the examiner shows a gross lack of professionalism in his short narration, when he describes the approximate age of the victim only after checking with his flunky off-camera. A desctiption is supposed to be just that, the observer’s untainted assessment. By asking someone else to tell him the age, he is cheating. It’s a small thing, sure, but no pathologist I know would ever do that.
If the girl had been bitten on the right cheek while alive, there would have been contusions at least (also possibly lacerations/abrasions), and they should have been visible on that video. I can’t see them simply appearing overnight, even if there is drying of the body in the interim.
However, before I go totally out on the limb, I would wonder if someone tampered with the video, reversing the image left-to-right (as in a mirror), and the first part of the video was actually shot from the left side of the body, then reversed to make it look as if it’s from the right. That’s the only plausible way I can think of that would explain the discrepancy without invoking mendacity on the examiner’s part.
Either way, someone is lying, either by tampering with the body or tampering with the video. We just don’t know who.
Thanks to Dr. Uthman for his response.