Mississippi sheriff, county leader discuss establishing crime lab for north part of state to address backlog of autopsies

Published 5:13 am Friday, June 24, 2022

A Mississippi sheriff wants to establish a crime lab for the northern portion of the state to combat the massive backlog of autopsies.

During the Lafayette County Board of Supervisors’ budget audit sessions, Lafayette County Sheriff discussed potentially establishing a lab in North Mississippi.

“What we’re looking at and what we think there’s a need for is a localized crime lab that we would open up to all the surrounding areas,” said Sheriff Joey East.

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The Associated Press reported in April that Mississippi’s system has accrued a severe backlog of autopsies and reports, operating in violation of national standards for death investigations.

According to national standards, 90% of autopsy reports should be completed within two to three months, or 60 to 90 days, however in April, the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office awaited 1,300 reports from as far back as 2011. This indicates that many death investigations, approximately 800 homicide cases, in the state are unsolved.

“The state of Mississippi is behind and they’re failing the crime rate and they’re failing in autopsies and pathology,” East said.

In 2021, the sheriff’s department and Lafayette County Coroner’s Office were two years behind on some toxicology lab reports. A year later, they are at one year behind on reports, said East.

“That puts the log over in Circuit Court behind,” he said. “We get probably 100 cases over here in that court.”

And in light of the recent spike in drug overdoses, especially fentanyl deaths, the weeks-long, or even months-long, wait for reports is concerning.

“When we have someone that dies from a possible overdose, we’re having to wait a long time to even get a toxicology report back to finally even know what they were on,” said East.

The LCSD currently has its eye on an unoccupied facility that could be used in the department’s future expansion to house a crime lab with at least three employees.

East has contacted officials at the Columbus Police Department Forensic Laboratory for more insight and details on crime labs, but he also decided to discuss opening a local crime lab with the Board of Supervisors and to gain express permission to explore their options.

“We feel like this is something possible that we could do,” said East.

But to get the operation underway, it would cost the county at least $700,000 just for the necessary equipment. East states the cost could be partially paid through seed bonds and through the government or sheriff’s department’s funds.

“It’s not going to pay for itself in a year but in four or five years, I think we could have it paid off and then we’ll start to see a decent profit for it,” East said.

The crime lab would speed up autopsies and reports, create more jobs in the area and benefit other crime labs in the region. Also East said the lab would be helpful for law enforcement and courts when the Mississippi Medical Cannabis Program goes into effect.

“I don’t think [the autopsy backlog] will ever decrease because I don’t see the state of Mississippi fixing their current issue,” East said. “We feel like there’s a need for it and we’re moving in the right direction.”

After the in-depth discussion, the Board of Supervisors gave their permission for East to continue exploring the best possible options. Though costly, a local crime lab would help improve the number of open or unsolved cases in the region.

“I’m all for being on the cutting edge of where we need to be,” said board president Mike Roberts.