Autopsies backing up coroners

Published 12:04 pm Monday, January 17, 2011

Mississippi continues to search for a qualified pathologist to perform autopsies that are keeping county coroners waiting on results and families waiting for closure.

“The state’s trying to get caught up,” Warren County Coroner Doug Huskey said. He said he has had to wait up to five days for a body to be returned after autopsy.

Last year, state law was enacted setting higher standards for the next state medical examiner and those who do autopsies in criminal investigations. The law created a position of county medical examiner to be staffed only by doctors certified in forensic pathology.

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“It’s not been easy to hire a board-certified pathologist,” said Huskey, who pointed out that his office has had to wait for up to two weeks to get results from the Mississippi State Crime Lab when toxicology reports are required.

Dr. Adel Shaker is Mississippi’s only state medical examiner. Public Safety Commissioner Steven Simpson said he has a verbal agreement with another pathologist to join the staff, but that person might not arrive before March. Bodies examined after sudden, violent or unexpected deaths in Warren County are typically sent to Jackson, Huskey said, though backlogs occasionally have prompted Huskey to use a Gulf Coast pathologist.

With only one pathologist in the state medical examiner’s office, some families have had to wait a week or more for their loved ones’ bodies to be released. Local coroners say that’s not fair.

Some autopsies get done in a day, but one body was stored for nine days, Lauderdale County Coroner Clay Cobler said. “The family was not happy about that,” he said.

Cobler said the body eventually was sent to the Gulf Coast. “It’s just not economically feasible to send someone down there every day, so they waited until they had three to send down there,” he said.

“We’ve talked to people from Anchorage to Texas to Alabama to New York,” he said Friday.

Some states require coroners to have medical degrees; Mississippi requires a high-school diploma and — after election — certification from the Mississippi Crime Laboratory and State Medical Examiner Death Investigation Training School.

Shaker is a board-certified forensic pathologist, a physician with additional years of training in ways to determine causes of death.

After Aamia Washington, 20, of Crystal Springs, died Tuesday in a collision with a school bus, her family was told it was unclear when her body could be returned for her funeral.

The autopsy was performed almost immediately after the family contacted the media and showed up at the state coroners’ convention in Jackson, Copiah County Coroner Ellis Stuart said.

Simpson said media attention didn’t speed the autopsy.

Stuart said autopsy reports take far longer. He said a young Copiah County couple has waited since May 2010 to learn why their 3-month-old child died at a day care center.

“That’s a young family, and it was their first child. How much more important can that be?” he asked.

Another family has waited since the Dec. 6 deaths of a father and grandfather to find out what killed them in what could be a criminal case, Stuart said. But whether charges will be filed is pending the autopsy results.

An announcement in late November that a second certified forensic pathologist had been hired to head the office was followed less than a week later by word that he had withdrawn because of illness.

Simpson, the state public safety commissioner, has said he wants a staff of 13 to 15 people in the medical examiner’s office, including a chief pathologist and four or five assistants, including Adel.

He said Shaker worked 17 straight days during the Christmas holidays, including Christmas Day, trying to make sure there was not a backlog.