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Deadly Politics

What If the Worst Crime Imaginable Never Happened?

Jimmie Duncan is on death row in Louisiana based on fraudulent science—but that might not matter if the state’s governorship flips this fall.

On December 18, 1993, Haley Alyse Oliveaux was found facedown in the bathtub of an apartment in West Monroe, Louisiana, while in the care of her mother’s boyfriend. Jimmie Duncan said he left the 23-month–old alone for just a few minutes as he did the dishes before he found her unconscious when he returned to the bathroom. He tried to perform CPR, then carried Haley in his arms to a neighbor’s house. After lifesaving measures by the responding officer and paramedics failed, Haley was pronounced dead at the local hospital.

Several hours later, under police interrogation, Duncan was inconsolable. Sobbing, he told the police, “I jerked her out of the bathtub and tried to get her to breathe, and I couldn’t. I tried to blow her air. I tried pushing on her little tummy.” When the officers concluded their interview with Duncan and asked if he wanted to add anything to his statement, he cried out, “I just want to bring the baby back.”

The West Monroe Police Department charged Duncan with negligent homicide, alleging that his carelessness and inattention led to the toddler’s death. After doctors examined Haley’s rectum and suspected possible abuse, they sent her body to Jackson, Mississippi, to be examined by Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist, and his colleague Dr. Michael West, a dentist. Their findings changed everything.

West identified tooth marks on Haley’s body, and Hayne stated that he found overwhelming evidence that she was the victim of a violent sexual assault. Based on those determinations, prosecutors concluded that Duncan had bitten Haley repeatedly, anally raped her, and forcibly drowned her to cover up his crimes. Prosecutors upgraded the charges to first-degree murder.

Duncan maintained his innocence from the beginning, but in 1998 a Ouachita Parish jury convicted him of capital murder and sentenced him to death. He was sent to death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he has remained ever since, spending a quarter-century awaiting execution. But that could change. Duncan’s lawyers filed a petition late last year that seeks to overturn his conviction and set him free.

Should those efforts fail, Duncan’s prospects are grim. The odds are that the state could have a new Republican governor this time next year, one who is determined to restart executions in Louisiana for the first time in over a dozen years.

What if the worst crime imaginable never happened? This is the argument Duncan’s legal team and their experts are making. In late December, Duncan’s attorneys, joined by the Innocence Project, filed to overturn his conviction under a state law enacted in late 2021 that allows prisoners to bring claims based on newly discovered evidence of innocence. Duncan’s team argued that the case against him was the product of fraudulent science, prosecutorial chicanery, and the lies of a jailhouse informant.

The centerpiece of Duncan’s petition is a video recording made shortly after Haley’s death during the autopsy. In it, West, the dentist, can be seen repeatedly embedding a mold of Duncan’s teeth into Haley’s body and dragging it across her face—effectively, “creating the bite marks,” according to Duncan’s lawyers.

The jury never saw the video; prosecutors moved to exclude it after West received a one-year suspension by the American Board of Forensic Odontology for misconduct that included overstating the certainty of his conclusions in bite mark cases. “West has taken forensic odontology to bizarre, megalomaniacal depths,” journalist Radley Balko, who uncovered Oliveaux’s autopsy video and has extensively tracked West’s record of providing suspect expert testimony, wrote in a 2007 article for Reason.

Despite West’s questionable methods, Duncan’s trial judge determined that the video contained “no exculpatory evidence favorable to the defendant.” Prosecutors did not call West at trial. Instead, a different dentist—who never examined Haley or watched the video—testified to his findings.

West denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the police and doctors at the hospital also saw bite marks. When I asked him about the allegations in Duncan’s petition stating the opposite, West told me, “they called them injuries, honey. Until you match them up with someone’s dentition, they are just injuries.” He said he did not testify at trial because he “would have broke down and cried.” Haley, he said, “could have been my daughter’s twin.” His suspension was, he said, uncalled for because the results he showed in his study have since been replicated by other people. “It has been 10 to 12 years, and I am still waiting for my letter of apology.”

Duncan’s petition also details how the rest of the state’s case has come undone. In October, a recantation came from a jailhouse informant who had testified at trial that, while the two were housed in a cell together, Duncan confessed to him that “it must have been the devil” that spurred him to sexually assault Haley. The informant’s testimony was given in exchange for favorable treatment by prosecutors, a deal that was never disclosed to Duncan’s trial counsel as required under Brady v. Maryland. The violent anal rape testified to by Hayne and a second expert “is not supported by physical evidence,” according to Duncan’s petition. The brutal sexual assault of a baby would necessarily involve a great deal of blood and other signs of acute physical injury—none of which were present in this case. The most reasonable explanation for the redness and fissures to the child’s anus, Duncan’s experts now say, is what naturally occurs to a body postmortem and some combination of a diaper rash and an overly vigorous butt-wiping.

Over the course of her short life, Haley suffered from a series of head injuries and seizures, but her medical history was kept from the jury. Twice, she was taken to the emergency room while in the care of her mother after suffering a seizure, both times after hitting her head. Three weeks before she died, Haley sustained another head wound while in Duncan’s care after she stepped on an open drawer and a small dresser collapsed on top of her. (A Child Protective Services investigation found no evidence of abuse.) Following a hospitalization after that incident, Haley was discharged to her mother and grandmother, who were told not to leave her alone in the bathtub because of the risk the seizures would recur.

There was no biting, no rape, and no murder, Duncan’s lawyers say. Haley simply had a seizure and drowned.

This is not the story of an outlier case of a wrongfully convicted prisoner with a compelling innocence claim. For over two decades, West and Hayne built a lucrative business diagnosing bite mark deaths in cases like Duncan’s. A 2016 Washington Post piece by Balko described West as a “rock star in the world of forensics” in the mid-late 1990s. From the early 1990s and until 2008, Hayne performed at least 80 percent of the autopsies in the state of Mississippi and often brought in West to consult. They also routinely took cases from Louisiana. Hayne performed up to 1,700 autopsies per year—the national standard at the time put the appropriate number at no more than 250—despite the fact that he had flunked the forensic certification examination administered by the American Board of Pathology.

“Usually you find in these aggressive violent sexual attacks, that’s where you’ll find a lot of bite marks. Don’t really know if I am qualified to get into all of the sociology or psychology of it but they turn animalistic,” West said in an interview for episode one of the 2020 Netflix series The Innocence Files. It recounted the case of Levon Brooks, a Mississippi man convicted for the rape and murder of a three-year-old girl after West and Hayne claimed they matched his teeth to bite marks they said they found on the victim. In 1992, Brooks was sentenced to life without parole and served 16 years in prison before DNA exonerated him. In the mid-1990s, Kennedy Brewer was convicted of capital murder and sent to Mississippi’s death row for killing his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter under the same theory, also based on testimony from West and Hayne. “We didn’t even think they were bite marks,” said a leading expert of the unanimous conclusion he and his colleagues reached after reviewing Brewer’s case. Brewer was exonerated in 2008 after serving 15 years in prison. Justin Johnson, the man who killed both children, confessed to raping and murdering them but denied he ever bit them. “Every prosecutor in Mississippi knows that if you don’t like the results you got from an autopsy, you can always take the body to Dr. Hayne,” said Leroy Riddick, an Alabama medical examiner.

Hayne’s and West’s shoddy work and questionable testimony are linked to at least seven wrongful convictions—collectively, these exonerees have served more than 400 years in prison. The bite mark “science” that was their calling card has been completely repudiated. Nationwide, more than two dozen other prisoners who were convicted using similar techniques have been freed.

“The case against Jimmie Duncan is a complete fabrication by junk scientists at the height of their most virulent work in the South,” said Innocence Project attorney Chris Fabricant, a member of Duncan’s legal team and author of the 2022 book Junk Science and the American Criminal Justice System.

The prosecution is not required to file a response to the petition, although Duncan’s lawyers say that they will ask the court to order one if necessary. Fourth Judicial District D.A. Steve Tew declined to comment, citing Duncan’s pending litigation. Hayne passed away in 2020, but West stated that he stands by their work and their medical conclusions. “Defense attorneys are allowed to lie, cheat, and steal, to do anything they can to get the death sentence overturned.”

When Duncan was first sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, he could see the gallows. If his bid for exoneration fails, he may still have years of appeals. But appeals are rarely granted, and the end of the road is bleak. Louisiana hasn’t executed anyone since 2010, when a man named Gerald Bordelon waived his appeals and volunteered to be subjected to lethal injection. But that could soon change, with catastrophic consequences for Duncan and the 61 people left on the state’s death row.

Louisiana’s recent reluctance to execute its prisoners stands in sharp contrast to other red states in the Deep South, such as Texas and Oklahoma, which each carried out five death sentences in 2022. Oklahoma has already scheduled executions into 2024 in several controversial cases, including Richard Glossip’s. Louisiana’s reprieve has also been tenuous. The state’s current governor, Democrat John Bel Edwards, declined to join the three Democratic governors in California, Oregon, and Pennsylvania in officially declaring a death penalty moratorium. Still, he also hasn’t shown the same zeal for executing inmates as neighboring Southern governors. In 2018, when a federal judge ordered that Louisiana executions be stayed for a year because of a legal challenge to the state’s lethal injection protocol, Edwards said his hands were tied. “The drugs are not available,” he said, “and legislation has not passed to address concerns of drug companies or offer alternative forms of execution.”

The state’s diminished appetite for the death penalty also stems in part from its alarming record of wrongful convictions. New Orleans was once the wrongful convictions capital of the United States, and Louisiana had the second-highest rate of wrongful convictions per capita in the nation from 1989 to 2015. Among them: Glenn Ford, who was released in 2014 after serving nearly 30 years in solitary confinement on death row after being wrongly convicted in a 1983 robbery and murder. He died a year later of lung cancer. As he neared death, one of the prosecutors in the Ford case went on 60 Minutes to confess to his misconduct: “I ended up, without anybody else’s help, putting a man on death row who didn’t belong there.” Mercedes Montagnes, the executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, a New Orleans–based nonprofit, said, “there is an awareness that these convictions are not credible and that innocent people could be executed.”

That awareness is not shared by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has staked his reputation on hard-line law and order stances, especially when it comes to the death penalty. In 2018, he said the state should pursue execution methods including hangings, firing squads, and the gas chamber. Last year, Landry suggested that the identities of pharmaceutical companies that manufacture execution drugs should be shielded from the public “so they are not badgered by the left.”

Landry is also a member of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which has ties to the insurrection and calls itself the “last line of defense” against perceived liberal overreach. Landry is now seeking to replace Edwards, who is term-limited, as Louisiana’s governor. He’s quickly emerged as the front-runner in the race set for this fall, securing the endorsement of the state’s Republican Party and amassing a war chest of $5 million by mid-February. (Landry did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.) His bid may be aided by the fact that the Louisiana Democratic Party is in disarray, and just one candidate has emerged so far as a potential challenger.

Montagnes said she fears a “bloodbath” if Landry is elected, predicting at least three executions within the first six months of a Landry gubernatorial term in 2024. Duncan’s legal team is confident he won’t be one of them. But “we are always nervous,” said Scott Greene, one of Duncan’s pro bono attorneys.

Even West agrees that Duncan should not be executed, although he remains steadfast in his belief that he is guilty. “You can always be wrong,” he told me. “You can be 99.9999999 percent, but you will never be 100 percent.” He added, “It is a lot easier to get you out of jail than it is to get you out of the cemetery.”

Greene remains hopeful that Tew, the local D.A., will see that Duncan is innocent. “He can be the white knight to come in and save the day.” Still, the political ramifications haven’t escaped the thinking of Duncan’s legal team. “When you file something like we filed,” Greene said, “you immediately raise the profile of your client to people who may be friendly and people who may be unfriendly.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.