Murder trial delay

The May 2017 killing of eight people in Lincoln County, allegedly at the hands of a man upset about his troubled marriage, was a social and emotional tragedy for the Southwest Mississippi county.

More than a year later, with no trial date in sight for the accused killer, it is becoming evident that the case will be a financial tragedy by the time it ends.

The Brookhaven Daily Leader reported recently that, during budget discussions for the coming fiscal year, the Lincoln County administrator told supervisors that they may need to set aside more than $150,000 for the cost of the trial. That is a gigantic expense for a single case, and it may not include any extra costs incurred by the district attorney’s office.

It’s clear that the court system is moving too slowly. But there’s a reason for this.

Circuit Judge David Strong of McComb hopes to have the trial finished by the end of 2019. If that indeed turns out to be a correct estimate, it means a full 30 months will have passed between the commission of the crime and a court verdict.

That’s too much time, and one reason the case is taking so long involves the analysis of evidence at the state level.

The Lincoln County circuit clerk said Strong is getting impatient with the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory, which as of last week has not provided autopsy reports on three of the eight victims — more than a year after they died.

The district attorney’s office is considering calling forensics lab officials to discuss the delay if the autopsy reports are not available for the suspect’s next scheduled court hearing in November. That’s three months away, and the public awareness of the case surely will prompt the lab to complete the reports.

Still, the question is obvious: If evidence from such a shocking crime is so badly delayed, how many other cases at the forensics lab are behind schedule? The answer is, unfortunately, a lot, and a year’s wait for autopsy reports is typical.

According to a story in the Clarion Ledger in July, the forensics lab’s main building in Pearl has space for 120 employees but is only half full, mostly due to the departure of medical specialists for higher-paying jobs in other states.

Last month, the forensics lab had only two doctors on staff to perform 1,400 autopsies per year — more than five times the recommended number of autopsies a person should handle.

The good news is that the Legislature has approved higher salaries for the lab’s specialists as well as the addition of four physicians. Recruiting has started, but it will take several months for the new staff to be hired and licensed in the state.

This problem must be solved. It’s important to proceed with individual crime cases in an attempt to allow the victims to move on. But from a broader legal perspective, the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment provides the right to “a speedy and public trial.” A year-long backlog at the forensics lab does not pass that test — and it also increases the expense of the case.

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