Death, the Drug War, and Cory Maye


Writers on this page and elsewhere long have exposed the U.S. War on Drugs for what it is: a fraud that has killed or destroyed many more people than ever have been injured or killed by illegal drugs themselves. This war has empowered the state and has led to the modern phenomenon of the government home invasion, better known as the "raid," which not only is a death sentence to innocents, but kills liberty itself.

The intersection of the Drug War, police-led home invasions, and race has made for the worst assaults on human liberty in this history of this country. We can speak of the millions of people either in prison, arrested, or having served time in prison for drug offenses, the illegal drug-fueled gang wars in cities that make daily life unbearable for law-abiding citizens.

After a while, unfortunately, the numbers overwhelm us and make us numb. As Josef Stalin once said (in a cynical self-statement about his use of mass murder), "One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic." This article is about a single death and another life destroyed as the Drug War, a police home invasion, and the politics of race have come together in a very bad way to effectively end the life of a young black man. It also is about the very real fraud that prosecutors perpetrate almost daily in their quest to fill prisons, many times with innocent people.

At this time, Cory Maye is serving life imprisonment in Mississippi for shooting to death Officer Ron Jones of Prentiss early in the morning of December 26, 2001. Maye had been on death row until a judge overturned the death sentence and gave him life imprisonment. No one argues that Maye shot Jones to death, but the circumstances of the shooting are disputed, and that makes all the difference as to whether Jones should be vilified as a "cop killer" or was acting in justified self-defense.

Before going on with the story, I will say that had it not been for Radley Balko of Reason Magazine, few people would have known about this case and Maye could still have been headed for the execution chamber. Balko began to write about it on his own blog, The Agitator, and has written much about it elsewhere. If there is a hero in this sorry tale, it is Balko. Since his writings first appeared, people on the right and left have picked up on it and made it more public, although it has not received the publicity of other racially-charged cases, such as those of the "Jena Six," and no one has marched for Cory Maye.

Unlike some of the defendants in Jena, however, Maye had no criminal record the night police burst into his home as he was asleep in his living room, his 18-month daughter sleeping in the bedroom. He was awakened early in the morning by a pounding at his door, and ran into the child’s bedroom to grab a pistol he kept for protection.

The pounding continued, and Maye took a position lying on the floor, when the bedroom door burst in — and Maye fired three times. Two shots hit Jones’ bullet-proof vest, but one went into Jones’ abdomen, and he later died of the wound.

According to Maye, he had no idea that the intruders were police, who had been given the address by an informant, a rather seedy character from Prentiss who makes money by being a police informant. Will Grigg describes the informant in the following way:

Prentiss, Mississippi resident Randy Gentry is described by Balko as "a 51-year-old guy with white hair pulled back into a ponytail [and] a long, white beard…." He also wears glasses, but not for reading, because he’s illiterate, which is a tragedy.

There are many decent and generous people from the Deep South who meet that description. Gentry is not among them. He appears to be a professional parasite, a drug user who occasionally works as a "confidential informant" when the local branch of the Leviathan State’s police apparatus wants to conduct a no-knock drug raid. Gentry has performed that service on many occasions.

However, as noted earlier, Maye did not have a criminal record and did not have a reputation as either a drug user or dealer. (Police did find a smidgen of marijuana in the house — a misdemeanor amount at most — but there was no huge "stash" of pot that police had been told was there.) He was a young man in the wrong place on the wrong end of yet another police home invasion based on an informant’s lie, something that is all-too-common in this country today.

Maye’s Troubling Trial

Prosecutors indicted Maye for first-degree capital murder. Balko writes:

Under Mississippi law, if Maye knew or should have known that Ron Jones was a police officer before he fired his gun, he is guilty of capital murder. If there is reasonable doubt about his knowledge that Jones was a police officer, he is not guilty (although one could conceivably make a case for criminal negligence if it can be shown he should have exercised more judgment before firing).

The most obvious argument in Maye’s defense involves the simplest interpretation of events. A man with no criminal record is awakened by the sounds of someone breaking into his home. While he is lying in the dark with his daughter, the door to the bedroom flies open and someone jumps inside. Fearing for his life, the man fires in self-defense and kills the intruder.

To convict Maye, the jury had to believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a man with no criminal record, a man who had just moved out of his parents’ home to make a life with his daughter and girlfriend, a man who had only a minuscule amount of marijuana in his apartment, looked out the window to see a team of police officers was about to enter; decided to take them on, even though he had done nothing wrong; waited for them to forcibly enter his home; fired three shots, killing just one of them; and then surrendered, leaving four bullets still in his gun.

Yet, a jury convicted him, but not without misconduct on behalf of prosecutor Buddy McDonald. As Balko points out:

The evidence against Cory Maye isn’t just weak. Some of it was presented at trial in a manner that was downright misleading. The prosecution’s forensics case is one example.

Mississippi’s forensic pathology system is, in the words of one medical examiner I spoke with, "a mess." The state has no official examiners. Instead, prosecutors solicit them from a pool of vaguely official private practitioners to perform autopsies in homicide cases. Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy on Jones, appears to be a favorite. In the words of Leroy Reddick, a respected medical examiner in Alabama, "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." Defense attorneys in the state bristle at Hayne’s name. In a case last year in Starkville, he testified that he could tell by the wounds in a corpse that there were two hands on the gun that fired the bullet, consistent with the prosecution’s theory that a man and his sister team jointly pulled the trigger. Several medical examiners have told me such a claim is preposterous.

Hayne testified at Maye’s trial that he is "board certified" in forensic pathology, but he isn’t certified by the American Board of Pathology, the only organization recognized by the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American Board of Medical Specialties as capable of certifying forensic pathologists. According to depositions from other cases, Hayne failed the American Board of Pathology exams when he left halfway through, deeming the questions "absurd." Instead, his C.V. indicates that he’s certified by two organizations, one of which (the American Board of Forensic Pathology) isn’t recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. The other (the American Academy of Forensic Examiners) doesn’t seem to exist. Judging from his testimony in other depositions, it’s likely Hayne meant to list the American College of Forensic Examiners. According to Hayne, the group certified him through the mail based on "life experience," with no examination at all. Several forensics experts described the American College of Forensic Examiners to me as a "pay your money, get your certification" organization. A February 2000 article in the American Bar Association Journal makes similar allegations, with one psychologist who was certified through the group saying, "Everything was negotiable — for a fee."

Hayne’s testimony was critical in securing Maye’s conviction. Hayne said he could tell from the damage to Jones’ body the trajectory the bullet took as it entered the officer. Based on that trajectory, he speculated that Maye was standing when he shot Jones, not lying on the floor, as Maye testified. Hayne’s testimony seriously damaged Maye’s credibility with the jury.

But according to a post-trial review by an actual, board-certified forensics expert whom Maye’s new legal team hired, it would be impossible to project the bullet’s trajectory based on the tissue damage in Jones’ corpse, because Jones might have been crouching, rolling, or prone when he was hit. Furthermore, the hole created in the bedroom door frame by one of the three bullets Maye fired that night clearly slants upward, from about shoulder height. The prosecution ignored a bullet hole in a fixed object that was consistent with Maye’s account of the raid and instead pushed Hayne’s testimony about the supposed trajectory of a bullet that struck a moving object.

As Balko has noted elsewhere, Hayne has been the perfect pathologist for police and prosecutors, as he has the reputation of testifying in any way necessary for a conviction. Yet, Hayne operates with what one charitably would call unorthodox methods:

Hayne has repeatedly testified under oath that he performs more than 1,500 autopsies per year — a staggering number that dwarfs even the output of the prolific Dr. Erdmann. That’s more than four per day, every day of the year, for the 20 years Hayne’s been in Mississippi. In a 2002 deposition, Hayne put the estimate at 1,800.

What’s more, for most of his career, Hayne also has held jobs as medical director of the Rankin Medical Center (a post he left last summer) and as director of the Renal Lab, a kidney and dialysis research center. These jobs, he has testified, would take up about 55 hours per week of his time, hours not spent performing the 30 to 35 autopsies he says he does each week. (A typical autopsy should take two to three hours, but sometimes takes an entire day, depending on the condition of the body and cause of death.) Hayne has said in depositions that he also testifies "two to three to four times per week," all across Mississippi and occasionally in Louisiana.

How does he find the time? In his testimony, Hayne has claimed he "commonly" works 18 to 20 hours per day. He says he doesn’t take vacations, and works every weekend and every holiday.

Until recently, Hayne performed most of his autopsies not at the state lab in Jackson but at Mississippi Mortuary Services, a funeral home owned by Jimmy Roberts, the longtime Rankin County coroner. Hayne and a few trusted assistants do most of his autopsies late at night, and the operation has a gruesome reputation. People who have visited Hayne’s practice during an autopsy session have described seeing as many as 15 bodies opened at once, with Hayne and his assistants smoking cigars, sometimes even eating sandwiches, as they go from one body to the next. Critics interviewed for this article, none of them particularly squeamish about autopsies performed under normal conditions, referred to Hayne’s operation as a "slaughterhouse," a "sushi shop," and a "sausage factory."

Dwayne Wolf, a doctor who works for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office in Houston, had occasion to review one of Hayne’s autopsies when he was practicing in Alabama. "Dr. Hayne’s deficiencies are glowingly obvious when you review his work," Wolf says. "There were a lot of things done in a substandard way."

Harry Bonnell, a medical examiner in private practice in San Diego who sits on NAME’s (National Association of Medical Examiners) ethics board, was asked by a defense attorney to review an autopsy Hayne performed in 2003 on a suspected murder victim. Bonnell was floored by Hayne’s conclusions. Using unusually strong language, Bonnell said Hayne’s conclusions were "near-total speculation," the quality of his report was "pathetic," and Hayne’s failure to obtain specimens from the body and perform toxicology reports "borders on criminal negligence."

(As a side note, I would add that we should not be surprised when government authorities openly seek and then champion something like fraudulent forensic examinations, especially since most jurors do not know the science of forensics. Once it has become apparent that prosecutors are seeking convictions over the truth, then it should follow logically that they will employ fraudulent methods whenever they think they need help to garner convictions.)

Unfortunately, Maye’s family pulled a huge blunder. Instead of hiring the local public defender, Bob Evans, who was convinced of Maye’s innocence, they hired a black female attorney from Jackson who told them she had death penalty experience (according to the family) when, in fact, she did not.

The attorney’s first step was fatal. She demanded — and received — a change of venue from Jefferson to Lamar counties. Jefferson County is 57 percent black, while Lamar is 85 percent white, and tends to be dominated politically by white, law-and-order Republicans, the very kind of people who always will believe a police officer’s testimony, and especially a white officer’s testimony against a black defendant who had a tiny bit of marijuana in his home.

The prosecution’s response was that of "please don’t throw me in the briar patch," as it all but guaranteed victory for the state, even after a judge permitted a second move, this time to another Republican-dominated location, Marion County. Writes Balko:

In an area where race and class figure so prominently in public and private life, Cooper’s (Maye’s attorney) mistake was devastating. "The best the prosecution would have gotten in Jefferson Davis County is a hung jury," Evans says. "There’s just no way a majority-black jury would have come back with death with those facts." (The jury that convicted Maye consisted of 10 whites and two blacks.)

Jurors heard not only a dishonest prosecution (just the Hayne testimony alone was enough to shatter Maye’s credibility and lead the jury to convict), but also a defense attorney who later was ruled to be incompetent by a judge during an appeal. Given those circumstances, it is not surprising that the jury came back with its verdict. The battle to overturn the actual conviction is uphill, to say the least, and Maye must deal with the hard truth that facts and evidence are unimportant in U.S. courts these days, as judges tend to be obsessed with gaining "finality" and demonstrating reluctance to overturn juries, no matter how outrageous their verdicts might be.

The Continuing Tragedy

Unfortunately, the same system that has ground Cory Maye into the dirt marches on. Networks like FOX glamorize these home invasions (called raids) on television shows, and TV newscasters jump at the chance of accompanying police in order to film the sorry results. As Will Grigg writes:

The worst and most troubling version of “reality” television programs are those chronicling the experiences of law enforcement agencies — the decades-old Fox program “COPS” and its imitators, one of which is Dallas SWAT (which has engendered its own regional spin-offs, as well).

Police work is carried out by armed people invested with the power to commit discretionary lethal violence; it’s a monumentally bad idea to appeal to the vanity of such people and to encourage them to act in ways calculated to enhance their image.

“Reality” programs involving police tend to emphasize photogeneity over professionalism, not only in terms of the personnel chosen to represent a given department but also in terms of the decisions made in a given situation. Chases and confrontations make for dramatic television; patient de-escalation does not.

A simple knock at the door by Ron Jones during a daylight hour would have yielded the same drug haul that the fatal home invasion produced. The difference is that Jones, who by all accounts was well-liked in his community by people of all races, would be alive today and Cory Maye would be a free man pursuing his own life.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts