In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Radley Balko wrote:
The medical examiner in the case, Dr. Steven Hayne, had testified under oath that he could tell from the bullet wounds in the body that Edmonds and his sister simultaneously held the gun to fire the fatal shot. Of course, as the court concluded, it is impossible to make such a determination from examining bullet wounds.
Many of Balko’s fans have screamed that this testimony is ludicrous and unjustified.
But there are some facts missing from this explication — facts that I find fairly significant.
Namely, the defendant in the case confessed on videotape that he and his sister had both held the gun at or near the time it was fired. The defendant also claimed in his confession that he hadn’t aimed the gun. Yet the autopsy indicated that the victim was shot almost in the center of the back of the head, suggesting that someone did indeed aim the gun.
If the defendant was telling the truth, and he didn’t aim the gun, then someone might well have helped him aim it. This suggests the involvement of a second person — a conclusion that is consistent with the defendant’s videotaped confession that he did the crime with a second person helping him. The location of the wound, which a medical examiner can testify to, tended to show that someone had aimed the gun.
It was in this context — when specifically asked about the defendant’s version of events that he gave on videotape — that Dr. Hayne testified that he would favor the idea that two people were involved. Let me quote extensively from the Court of Appeals opinion, with my emphasis in places. Let’s start with some of the basic facts:
¶ 5. On Friday, May 9, 2003, Kristi Fulgham picked up her half-brother, Tyler Edmonds, to take him to her home in the Longview community as she did every other weekend. She and Edmonds have the same father, Danny Edmonds.
¶ 6. According to Edmonds’s videotaped confession, after arriving at Kristi and [her husband] Joey’s home, Edmonds and Kristi went out for Subway sandwiches for dinner. After dinner, Joey went to bed, while Kristi stayed up and used the computer. Edmonds fell asleep on the floor next to Kristi, and during the night, she woke him up and put him in one of her children’s beds.
¶ 7. Between three-thirty and four o’clock the alarm clock went off, waking Edmonds. He then went into the bedroom where Joey slept and, with Kristi’s help, shot Joey in the back of the head with a .22 caliber rifle that Edmonds had brought with him at Kristi’s request.
¶ 8. Kristi and Edmonds then loaded her three children into the car and took the computer and her jewelry, which, according to Edmonds, was to make it look as if there had been a robbery. Edmonds said he also thought Kristi took Joey’s wallet. They then traveled to Jackson. The gun was never found.
Discussing Dr. Hayne’s testimony, the Court of Appeals rejects as “disingenuous” a description of Dr. Hayne’s testimony that sounds a lot like Balko’s description:
¶ 45. In framing his argument under this issue, Edmonds is a bit disingenuous. He contends that Dr. Hayne’s opinion was that two persons (Edmonds and Kristi) simultaneously pulled the trigger of the gun that fired the shot that killed Joey. Before delving into our discussion of this issue, it is helpful to put into context how the matter of the two-person-trigger-pulling matter arose.
The Court of Appeals next quotes from some of Dr. Hayne’s testimony. In that testimony, he was specifically asked about the videotaped confession, and was asked whether his findings were consistent with the videotaped confession. The Court of Appeals opined that Dr. Hayne’s responses were appropriate when read in context:
¶ 49. In considering Dr. Hayne’s testimony in context, it is critical to remember that in [defendant] Edmond’s confession, Edmonds — despite saying at one point that Kristi’s hand was on the trigger — made it clear during further questioning that he was unsure of the location of either of Kristi’s hands when the fatal shot was fired, although he thought her right hand was on his stomach. Of equal importance is Edmonds’s statement that he “was just holding the gun” and “wasn’t really aiming at anything,” that he “was just pointing it somewhere at [that] time.”
¶ 50. It is not debatable that Joey was shot almost in the center of the back of his head. For that to happen, someone had to aim or point the gun toward Joey’s head. If Edmonds did not do the aiming, then Kristi did. On these facts, we do not find Dr. Hayne’s testimony problematic for two reasons.
¶ 51. First, it was the defense, not the State, that asked the question regarding the two-person-trigger-firing scenario. Second, it is clear that the point which Dr. Hayne was attempting to make is that, given Edmonds’s testimony that Edmonds did not aim the weapon at anything, it was more likely than not that another person assisted. This interpretation is clearly borne out by Dr. Hayne’s answer to the following hypothetical question asked by the defense attorney: “And let’s suppose if one person had fired that shot, would your opinion be the same?” Dr. Hayne’s answer was, “I could not exclude that; however, I would favor that a second party be involved in that positioning of the weapon.” Had Edmonds not stated in his confession that he did not aim the weapon, there would not have been any basis for Dr. Hayne to answer as he did. Dr. Hayne is a well-respected forensic pathologist who has performed many autopsies in this state and has given in-court expert testimony numerous times. He knows that you cannot look at a bullet wound and tell whether it was made by a bullet fired by one person pulling the trigger or by two persons pulling the trigger simultaneously. The record does not bear out Edmonds’s contention that that was Dr. Hayne’s testimony in this case.
How did the state’s Supreme Court opinion address this analysis? It really didn’t. Instead, the Supreme Court took the second-to-last sentence in the quoted paragraph, and chopped it up to make it mean something completely different from what it meant.
The sentence written by the Court of Appeals was this:
He knows that you cannot look at a bullet wound and tell whether it was made by a bullet fired by one person pulling the trigger or by two persons pulling the trigger simultaneously.
The Court of Appeals then said that Dr. Hayne was not testifying to that. But the bolded sentence was quoted by the Supreme Court in this way:
Tyler’[s] attorney objected to the testimony and requested a Daubert hearing, arguing that such testimony was beyond Dr. Hayne’s area of expertise. The circuit court denied the request, but the Court of Appeals recognized that such testimony was scientifically unfounded: “You cannot look at a bullet wound and tell whether it was made by a bullet fired by one person pulling the trigger or by two persons pulling the trigger simultaneously.” Edmonds at ¶ 51. We agree.
The Court of Appeals clearly indicated its belief that Dr. Hayne was not testifying to the notion that the shape of the bullet wound could show whether one person or two pulled the trigger. Yet the Supreme Court implied that the Court of Appeals had accused Dr. Hayne of testifying to exactly that. In order to maintain that suggestion, the Supreme Court chopped off the first three words of the Court of Appeals’s sentence, and capitalized the “y” in “you” to make it look like the beginning of the sentence.
Now, which interpretation of Dr. Hayne’s testimony is correct? I have no idea. Let me say that again, because it will be ignored: I have no idea whether the Court of Appeals’ interpretation of Dr. Hayne’s testimony is right or wrong. I haven’t read the trial transcripts. And the courts have only selected quotations from the trial.
Legally, the Supreme Court’s opinion is what matters. But that doesn’t mean it is necessarily factually correct. Courts get things wrong at times.
Now, this post will inevitably be portrayed as a “defense” of Dr. Hayne. So I need to say clearly that it is not. I am not arguing in this post that Dr. Hayne is a great guy, or even a competent doctor. Nothing in this post addresses Balko’s claims that Hayne does (or claims to do) far too many autopsies, or fails to meet minimum professional standards, or whatever complaints Balko may have about Hayne. This is a discussion of only one of Hayne’s cases; Balko has made it clear that he has concerns about many more cases. For all I know, all of those concerns are perfectly valid.
I know, 100% for a fact, that Balko will claim that I am defending, and even covering up for, Dr. Hayne. He’s already sent me an e-mail telling me that. If Balko writes a post saying I am trying to cover up for a bad apple because I am obsessed with Balko, let me say now that Balko will be telling a lie. If this doctor is dirty, or incompetent, I want him out. I don’t want him performing autopsies. I don’t want him testifying. I don’t want anything to do with him.
But I am not taking Radley Balko’s word for it. Period.
And so the point of this post is simply this: that there is another side to the story Radley Balko told about the Edmonds case. It is expressed quite clearly in a Court of Appeals opinion — but it is not mentioned in Balko’s Wall Street Journal op-ed. Instead, Balko flatly states, as an undisputed factual matter, that Dr. Hayne “testified under oath that he could tell from the bullet wounds in the body that Edmonds and his sister simultaneously held the gun to fire the fatal shot.”
Maybe that was the import of his testimony. Or maybe it wasn’t.
From what I’ve seen, there is some question.
And I’m not just taking Radley Balko’s word for it.
P.S. I have already written here about the fallacy I expect Balko and his commenters to use to attack me over this post. The idea is that if Dr. Hayne is a bad guy — and he may be — then it’s okay to say whatever you like about him, whether it’s true or not. Because if I have the audacity to point out any inaccuracies, or lack of disclosure, then I am “defending him” — which makes me the bad guy, even if everything I say is absolutely true.
UPDATE: More here, including a response from Balko, and my response to that.