For years now, Mississippi has been operating a dysfunctional system for determining the cause of death for those who die violently or from unexpected causes.
The backlog at the state’s Crime Lab is so bad that prosecutors say they feel fortunate if they get an autopsy report back within a year’s time.
Recently, The Associated Press did a thorough examination of the state’s death investigations. The results were not pretty.
Mississippi comes nowhere close to meeting national standards. As the AP summed it up, “Autopsied that should take days take weeks. Autopsy reports that should take months take a year or longer ... . Too few pathologists are doing too many autopsies. Some cases are transferred hundreds of miles to neighboring states for reports without the family’s knowledge.”
The result is that criminal trials get delayed for an unconscionably long time, which is painful for the victims’ families when the accused are guilty and unfair to the accused when they are not guilty.
Trials aren’t the only thing that can get delayed. Funerals can be put on hold waiting for an autopsy to be done. Life insurance payouts can sit in limbo while the survivors wait for death certificates on those who die unexpectedly.
The Associated Press compared Mississippi to a similarly sized neighbor, Arkansas. It found Mississippi wanting by almost every measurement.
From 2020 to April 2022, Arkansas employed anywhere from five to seven pathologists performing autopsies. Mississippi employed two to three, largely because it couldn’t keep people in the job due to the comparatively low pay and high caseload. In 2021, Arkansas’ six pathologists performed an average of 282 autopsies each — not much more than the industry maximum standard of 250. In Mississippi, two pathologists performed an average of 441 autopsies.
During relatively tranquil times, Mississippi’s medical examiners couldn’t keep up with their caseload. They’ve been drowning in the violent crime surge that produced back-to-back record numbers of homicides the past two years.
Mississippi has tried to reduce the backlog by contracting out autopsies, including to better-staffed Arkansas. That may be OK for the short term, but it’s expensive and reduces the amount of money available to hire pathologists to conduct these death examinations in-house.
After years of neglect, Mississippi hopefully is focused on the problem. During the 2022 session, the Legislature approved spending $4 million just to reduce the backlog. And Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell has pledged to get the state to the point where autopsy reports are completed within 90 days.
There have been similar promises before, but other priorities have always gotten in the way. It will take a long-term financial commitment from the state Legislature — mainly paying what it takes to recruit and retain pathologists — to effect a lasting solution.