Mississippi Supreme Court Reverses Where Defendant Unable to Afford Medical Expert

The Mississippi Supreme Court has given trial judges broader discretion to authorize public funds to a defendant who otherwise could not afford to hire an expert witness. So reports Radley Balko in The Washington Post.

The supreme court reversed the conviction of Leevester Brown for shaking his infant son to death. His conviction was based solely on his son’s shaken baby syndrome (SBS) diagnosis. Medical examiner Steven Haynes provided the sole expert testimony about the SBS diagnosis. Brown was denied funding to hire his own medical expert. The supreme court reversed on this basis, finding Brown was denied the “raw materials integral to the building of an effective defense.” The prosecution’s case centered on Hayne’s testimony, and Brown could not dispute it without engaging an expert witness for the defense.

Brown was able to hire his own attorney and pay his bond, so he did not qualify as an indigent defendant. However, he could not afford a medical expert. He also swore in an affidavit that he had no relatives or friends able to help pay an expert.

This holding suggests that a criminal defendant should be given funds to hire a medical expert, even when he is not an indigent defendant, if he affirms he is unable to afford expert fees. The trial judge is given discretion to decide whether the funds are necessary to provide the defendant a fair defense.

This holding may affect another Mississippi SBS case—that of Christopher Brandon, who was convicted of shaking his girlfriend’s infant son. Brandon was similarly denied funding to hire his own medical expert, and subsequently convicted. Steven Haynes testified about the SBS diagnosis in Brandon’s case, too. Haynes has been called “discredited” by Balko, and the Mississippi Supreme Court has since ordered an evidentiary hearing on Hayne’s credibility.

In Washington state, practices for providing public funds to hire expert witnesses vary from county to county. In most, at least, a defendant’s ability to hire private counsel would not disqualify him or her from public funds for an expert.