MISSISSIPPI - The Mississippi Crime Lab is at a critical point. Homicides are at an all-time high – with 374 homicides to date this year – while staffing at the crime lab is at a critically low point.
Every victim's body that is taken from a crime scene in Mississippi comes through the building for an autopsy.
Crime Lab Director Sam Howell takes the calls from grieving families.
“I have had victims actually call and cry to me about what we can do to get it done. Those are the hardest frustrations,” Howell told FOX13,
The trouble is he can't get it done. Right now, they're behind on 1000 autopsies. The state is supposed to have six medical examiners, but only two are on staff. In better times, the crime lab had 111 employees. They are now down to 86.
“Law enforcement gets frustrated with us because we can’t provide information to them in a timely manner so that they may make arrests. The District Attorney gets mad because we can’t provide them with the information to get an indictment or go to court. Judges get frustrated because they can’t complete their court docket. And a lot of time that frustration is taken out on us,” Howell explained.
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The state just increased the pay for Medical Examiners to hire four more. However, the pay for crime lab analysts hasn’t been adjusted in 10 years.
Because of the lack of workers, the lab has stopped helping law enforcement with certain cases. For instance, law enforcement must use private labs to test kits that test for gunshot residue.
“It would be unfair to law enforcement or prosecutors to continue to take something to put on a shelf when they have a realistic expectation that we might get to it in a timely manner and we are not going to,” Howell told FOX13.
FOX13 saw many empty labs during our time at the crime lab. Howell said even if he was up-to-staff tomorrow, it would take them more than a year to catch up on the case backlog.
The backlog of cases that they are dealing with is significant. They have approximately 6000 unworked cases.
Drug seizure evidence and drug death cases are coming in faster than they can process them.
While we were at the crime lab, we asked if we could speak to the Medical Examiners. We were told no; they are too busy performing autopsies.
The Medical Examiners must testify in trials; one in the north half of the state and one in the south half.
Because they have to testify in every murder trial, National Standards state Medical Examiners
Shouldn’t have to perform more than 250 autopsies a year. Mississippi’s two Medical Examiners did 1,500 autopsies last year – and testified in cases around the state.
“We are not in a position that we need to be in to answer the questions that we need to answer,” Howell said.
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