Tracking backlogs at the state Medical Examiner’s Office

Published 9:54 am Saturday, July 14, 2018


PEARL, Miss. (AP) — There is an almost 100,000 square foot glass building off the beaten path in Pearl, Mississippi.

It’s complete with some of the most expensive crime analysis equipment you will find.

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There is space for 120 people to work here, but the building is only half full.

“It’s a challenge. It is truly a challenge,” says Sam Howell, Director of the State of Mississippi Forensic Lab and the Medical Examiners Office that falls under it.

He sat down with WREG about his department’s struggle the last couple of years in getting out autopsy reports to law enforcement agencies and district attorneys across Mississippi in at timely manner.

“It’s in some instances very heartbreaking. I take a lot of calls from families – not only law enforcement and the courts, but from families needing answers and death certificates. I really feel bad,” says Howell.

It’s affecting families like that of Ismael Lopez, the Southaven man shot and killed by Southaven Police when they showed up at his house one night looking for someone else.

It took almost a year for the autopsy on Lopez’s body to be finished.

The doctor working on it had hundreds of other cases, and in the middle of them he moved to Maine for another position.

It’s a scenario that has become common in the state medical examiner’s office.

“We try to address the backlog as best we can. Unfortunately, people get frustrated with us. People get frustrated, law enforcement gets frustrated, the courts get frustrated and the district attorneys get frustrated. But when you don’t have the resources to perform or to respond to them, you just do the best you can,” says Howell.

In the medical examiner’s office, it’s at a critical level.

They are down to just two doctors to perform 1,400 autopsies a year.

That’s well above the average 250 autopsies each doctor is supposed to be limited to every year.

It’s why autopsies are on hold for months on end as the doctors try to get around to finishing their backlog of work, take on new work and testify in cases around the state.

It’s not just the medical examiner’s office.

The crime lab where everything from guns to fingerprints are tested is also facing a backlog and people shortage.

Howell gave WREG a tour of the crime lab where they test drugs, analyze DNA and store evidence in crimes.

It’s the ultimate CSI.

But 800 firearms sit untested.

Some 1500 drug cases wait to be reviewed and cases related to crimes remain open.

There just aren’t enough people to handle the work

“We have a fantastic facility here and resources, it’s just getting some people to come to Mississippi. We have some of the most interesting cases in the country,” says Howell.

In 2016, five doctors in the ME’s office were handling 1,700 autopsies a year.

Last year, it was down to two doctors handling 1,400.

That’s two doctors serving 400 law enforcement agencies and 21 district attorneys in 82 counties across Mississippi

The work is there, but finding the people to do it – that’s the problem.

“At the salaries we were offering, it’s just hard to compete for the number of jobs that are open for forensic pathologists across the country,” says Howell.

For years, Mississippi has been a training ground for medical pathologists who spend a few years there and then move to states paying much more than the 90,000 Mississippi was offering.

“We have recently upped the salary to be more competitive, and the legislature has provided funding for us to hire four additional doctors to the two we have,” says Howell.

The new starting salaries is 225,000 for licensed pathologists, competitive with what other states are paying.

Four new doctors can handle new cases, allowing the two existing doctors to catch up on their backlog cases.

“If you don’t have the resources, the analytical resources or the forensic resources to handle that then the back log continues to grow,” says Howell

Recruiting has already started, but it can take up to four months to go through hiring and another six to get a Mississippi medical license.

“This is not going to happen overnight. I will love to have some medical examiners on board starting in January. That will probably be the absolute soonest we can get that done,” says Howell.

They want to get it done and get some answers and closure for victims and their families.

Recruiting for those four new positions is already underway.

The Medical Examiner’s Office could start hiring as of the new budget year which started July 1st.