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Mississippi’s crime lab still struggles with autopsy backlog despite new positions and legislators’ promises

Mississippi’s crime lab still struggles with autopsy backlog despite new positions and...
Mississippi’s crime lab still struggles with autopsy backlog despite new positions and legislators’ promises
Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 11:12 PM CDT
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PEARL, Miss. (WLBT) - Two months after lawmakers approved new positions for the state’s crime lab amid talks of increased salaries for some of the positions to make Mississippi more competitive, those who investigate homicides in the state’s most populous county say they haven’t been able to tell if those actions are making a dent in the lab’s backlog of autopsies.

“Before last year, we had 88 autopsies that were outstanding before the Mississippi State Crime Lab. And as you know, we had 137 murders in our county last year,” Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens said during a January interview.

That number has since increased to around a hundred, Owens told WLBT last week, indicating the backlog continues to be a burden for those who try these cases in court.

“I am speaking of months before we get final autopsy reports. But again, that doesn’t mean that we’re not able to get what we consider a preliminary autopsy report to take us throughout the course of the investigation,” said Hinds County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Tyree Jones.

As a result, Jones said those delays don’t hamper efforts by his agency to pursue leads and build a case.

In April, 3 On Your Side reported lawmakers approving six new death investigator positions to help cut through that pileup.

DPS also hired back Mississippi’s former chief medical examiner, Dr. Mark LeVaughn, on a contractual basis to provide his expertise as well.

“He is working... primarily to complete the autopsies that he had started and did not have an opportunity to finish and also to testify in any pending criminal matters in which he was the medical examiner that performed those duties,” DPS Commissioner Sean Tindell said in a recent interview. “Dr. Stacy Turner, one of our other employees, has been named the interim chief medical examiner and, and we look forward to selecting a new chief.”

Those changes thus far haven’t produced the results that law enforcement have hoped to see.

“I don’t think that there’s been much of a change based on some of the things that I’ve experienced, and I’ve seen personally,” Jones said.

Tindell said he’ll be turning his entire focus to the crime lab for the next several months to help knock that backlog out.

“I feel confident we’re going to get there. Unfortunately, one of the things that does happen from time to time is our salaries can compete with the private sector, and they can adjust their salaries a lot quicker than we can. So it takes us a little time to catch up,” Tindell said. “The folks at the state personnel board and the Legislature have committed to making sure we can offer competitive salaries. And so we’re starting to see that happen. And I think that’s really going to help us facilitate that turnaround.”

Lawmakers had also talked about significantly increasing funding to the crime lab during the 2021 legislative session, but that didn’t happen.

The appropriations bill signed by Gov. Tate Reeves said the crime lab’s performance target is 1,200 autopsies for the year.

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