Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, a former state appellate judge, said the state is working through a backlog dating to 2017. Meanwhile, families and loved ones wait, sometimes years, for a verdict on how someone died.
The factors affecting Mississippi – funding and staff – are being felt in crime labs across the country.
“The issues of funding crime labs are reaching epic proportions,” said Matthew Gamette, who chairs the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations. “We really need to address these things in our country.”
Records sent to the Associated Press in April showed that the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office had a backlog of around 1,300 autopsy reports, some dating to 2011.
The backlog doesn’t stop there.
At the current rate, it would take the Mississippi State Forensics Laboratory over eight years to complete the drug test backlog and over 15 years to complete the firearm test backlog, according to data provided to MCIR by Bailey Martin, the state public safety commissioner’s press secretary.
Gamette, the laboratory systems director for the Idaho State Police Forensics Services, said labs around the country have a surplus of work, and he and other laboratory directors are unable to hire the staff they need because of the lack of funding on a national level.
Dr. James Gill, who chairs the Forensic Pathology Committee of the College of American Pathologists, said medical examiners face significant stress as families of those needing autopsies are sometimes forced to wait months to years for answers.
“You’re just always trying to keep your head above water, because you know you have a family behind every death who wants those remains, who wants answers,’ Gill said. “’Cause you have to try and at least get the autopsy done, so the body can go to the funeral home.”
Rita Korsen waited three years for her daughter’s autopsy report to be completed. Her daughter, Nicole Rathmann, died in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in 2018 following an assault by other inmates. When the autopsy report was finally completed, the cause of death was listed as an aneurysm. It didn’t address whether the assault was a factor.
Korsen had many sleepless nights waiting for the report.
“I found my recovery through the pain, you know, because if I didn’t I was gonna die, too, and I know my daughter would not want that for me,” Korsen said.
To alleviate the stress that unanswered questions pose to families, Tindell said his goal is to eliminate the backlog of autopsies dating to 2017 by the end of this year.
The Mississippi Legislature during the 2022 session approved $4 million to address backlogged cases. This money will go towards contracts to pathologists to handle the backlog.
The majority of cases will be contracted out of state, to locations such as Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia and Arkansas. The doctors typically won’t receive the bodies from Mississippi but will generate a cause of death report based on videos and notes, Tindall said.
“The reality is that it allows us to get the bodies back quicker to the family members versus them just waiting and waiting and waiting for it to be done here in Jackson,” Tindell said. More bodies are coming in to receive autopsies than the current four medical examiners and their staff in Mississippi can handle.
Mississippi has two medical examiner’s offices, but Tindell said he plans to open a third in north Mississippi. The new office would add a fifth medical examiner to Mississippi, allowing three to work from Jackson, one from the Gulf Coast and one from north Mississippi.
The state is working with Wayne State University in Detroit and Tulane University in New Orleans to hire student pathology assistants to assist staffing needs.
COVID-19 exacerbated Mississippi’s problem, as there were times when nobody could come to forensic offices since everything was shut down. However, the crime rate kept increasing, and people continued to die.
Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson said, since forensic science is so expensive, many cities have to rely on the state Crime Lab to receive the answers they need.
Natchez citizens have approached Gibson with concerns of unsolved crime. He said people have sat on the couch in his office, sobbing, telling him they’ve seen the perpetrator of their crimes in public, still living in freedom.
“We would cry together, pray together, because they were so frustrated,” he said.
Gibson says the Natchez Police Department in some cases will send evidence out of state to privately funded labs to have crimes solved faster. This costs three times as much as sending evidence to the state Crime Lab in Mississippi, “but we get it done,” Gibson said.
Tindell said he doesn’t want to delay a defendant’s right to a speedy trial by having unnecessary delays, such as an unfinished autopsy report.
“From the judicial standpoint, I knew that was a priority when I came here, and that’s something we’ve been working towards not only at the medical examiner’s office, but also at the Crime Lab in general, trying to address the backlog and put in different policies and procedures to make sure that we’re processing… in a timely manner.
“I think the reality is when we’re done here, Mississippi is going to be a success story on turning around the medical examiner’s office,” Tindell said. “This is not anything that is unique to just Mississippi, and it’s not anything that’s unique to this moment in time for our state.”
“I think once we’re done… people will look towards Mississippi on ways to correct the problem,” Tindell said.
The problem of underfunding is a nationwide issue.
Cost of equipment used in crime labs and medical examiner’s offices is constantly increasing with the rate of inflation, from kits to reagents, to instruments.
Project FORESIGHT, based at West Virginia University, is a performance benchmarking tool that allows for crime labs to undergo an internal business assessment. Its research shows prices increasing: From 2013-2020, digital evidence costs have risen by over 38%, crime scene investigation costs have risen over 12%, and fingerprints costs have risen by nearly 10%.
The data, taken from a sample of 196 laboratories and laboratory systems from around the world from the study shows average annual growth in case backlogs:. From 2013-2020, the crime scene investigation backlog has grown by over 628%, blood alcohol backlog by over 190% and toxicology reports (both postmortem and antemortem) by around 108%.
Dr. James Gill, the chief medical examiner of Connecticut, said there also has been a shortage of people going into the field of forensic pathology.
“Big offices, small offices, a lot of it comes down to funding and, if you already have problems with staffing, then it makes it even more difficult to get people ’cause people don’t want to go to an office that may be struggling,” Gill said.
Most of the money state crime labs and medical examiner’s offices receive comes from the Paul Coverdell Grant, distributed through the U.S. Office of Justice Programs. It covers non-DNA and medical examiner’s costs. Most of the funding is distributed based on crime rate and population.
The $20,621,050 distributed this year across the country through Coverdell funding is insufficient to provide forensic service organizations with the funding they need, Gamette said. The money is allocated from Congress, which does not use a documented needs assessment to distribute the funding.
Gamette said this way of dispersing funding limits the level and the extent of services that can be offered. With funding in Idaho, Gamette said he has to offer the same level of services offered in places like New York City. Idaho’s population is much less, but services like drug chemistry analysis, toxicology, and DNA are the same.
Project FORESIGHT data shows that the average cost per crime scene investigation case is $3,867.
“Sometimes the formulas don’t match what you need to do, but it’s a difficult thing to work out,” Gamette said.
Funding affects staffing
Mississippi invested significant funding into building the Crime Lab’s current facility ($30 million) but can’t maintain the necessary staff because of lack of funding.
As of July.15, 2022, the forensic scientists who work there make from $33,600 to $59,320.87, according to the Mississippi State Personnel Board.
Mary Jones Dukes, the lab’s director, said many of her employees have worked there either for over 20 years or under three years. There are not many employees in between, since many will stay at the lab for training and leave Mississippi for another state that offers a more competitive salary. Forensic scientists in Tennessee, for instance, make, on average, $47,724 to $106,092 annually, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Resources.
Not having enough staff to perform autopsies means not completing autopsies in the recommended 60-90 days. That, in turn, means families not being able to collect life insurance benefits, families waiting to get a death certificate, families waiting to bury their dead and the cause of death remaining unknown until pathologists can complete their work. Gill said it becomes a vicious cycle.
Truitt Pace killed his wife, Marsha Harbour, in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, in June 2018. Her family waited a week to have her funeral and over a year for the autopsy report. Meanwhile, Pace, who was freed on $100,000 bond the day of Harbour’s funeral, went on with his life, living in Alabama where he ran a roofing and construction business.
His murder trial didn’t start for another two years. Pace eventually was convicted in December 2021 of first degree murder.
The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends pathologists perform an average of 250 to 350 autopsies annually for quality control and for laboratories to maintain accreditation. This also helps to prevent doctors from being overworked. Gill said when a pathologist starts to do over 250 autopsies in a year, the risk for making mistakes increases.
“They’re always coming to us where we have a kind of a never-ending supply,” Gill said. “We’re all kind of chasing this to keep up with the numbers.”
Gamette stressed that the amount of work a laboratory or medical examiner’s office does is directly proportional to the funding it receives. Autopsy backlogs are directly tied to funding, he said. It can be solved by adding additional staff, or by becoming more efficient in instrumentation and processes.
But despite a pathologist’s turnaround time improving throughout his or her career, it is not enough to meet the number of autopsies that need to be performed.
“You’ve got to have more funding, because if police have more evidence to send and there needs to be more evidence for the prosecutors to support those correct prosecutions, we need more funding to be able to do that in a timely manner,” Gamette said.
This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting and funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. It was also produced in partnership with the Community Foundation for Mississippi’s local news collaborative, which is independently funded in part by Microsoft Corp. The collaborative includes MCIR, the Clarion Ledger, the Jackson Advocate, Jackson State University, Mississippi Public Broadcasting and Mississippi Today.