Mississippi’s public safety commissioner is optimistic that the state’s Crime Lab will catch up on its backlog of autopsy reports by the end of this year.
That sounds terribly optimistic of Sean Tindell, considering where the state was just six months ago.
In April, according to The Associated Press, records showed that the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office, which operates the Crime Lab, had a backlog of around 1,300 autopsy reports, some as old as 11 years behind.
This is not a new problem. For not just years but decades, Mississippi’s Crime Lab has regularly been struggling under huge backlogs. As a result, prosecutions are delayed, potentially innocent people sit in jail for years without coming to trial, and families of the victims are left hanging not just about criminal cases but even about sudden deaths for which foul play was not involved.
Those delays in definitively establishing the cause of death can keep families from being able to collect on life insurance policies and in extreme cases from burying the dead.
Crime lab backlogs are not unique to Mississippi, though, even if its situation has been extreme. According to a recent report from the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, crime labs around the nation — in fact, around the world — are backed up because they don’t have enough staff or the money to hire them. MCIR cites a study of 196 laboratories and laboratory systems around the world that found, from 2013 to 2020, the backlog in crime scene investigations jumped by more than 628%, in blood alcohol tests by more than 190% and in toxicology reports by about 108%.
The Mississippi Legislature has long recognized the problem. It spent $30 million on a new crime lab in Rankin County that opened in 2015, but that didn’t fix the constant difficulty of hiring and retaining enough pathologists to conduct the autopsies and complete the autopsy reports. This past year, lawmakers kicked in an extra $4 million, mostly to pay out-of-state pathologists on a contract basis to complete the autopsy reports.
Even if that works as well as Tindell predicts, that’s likely just a short-term fix. The fundamental problem at Mississippi’s Crime Lab is that its pay for pathologists and forensic scientists is not competitive. MCIR reports that as of July of this year, forensic scientists at the Crime Lab made between $33,600 and $59,300. In neighboring Tennessee, the pay for the same work ranges between $47,700 and $106,000.
Until the Legislature addresses that problem, it will be difficult for Mississippi to ever hit the national target of completing autopsies in 60 to 90 days.