Mississippi district attorney’s office explains what happens to court cases put on hold due to autopsy backlog

STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI) – A new report from the Associated Press says the ongoing backlog of autopsies at the Mississippi State Medical Examiners Office is the worst in the United States.

According to the AP’s records, the state medical examiner’s office was waiting for over one thousand reports earlier in April.

The District Attorney’s Office for the 16th Judicial District says that while it is not an overwhelming number, it does have several cases on hold due to pending autopsy reports.

“The victim’s family in these cases begin to get discouraged because the case has not been resolved in a timely manner,” Assistant DA Trina Davidson Brooks says. “And they kind of sometimes lose faith in the system because all they want is for justice to be served and to get closure.”

Davidson Brooks says they have had to wait close to two years in some cases for a completed report.

“The backlog of autopsies at the Mississippi Examiner’s State’s Office has an impact on here in our district and our ability to prosecute, for instance, a murder case in a timely manner,” she says.

Davidson Brooks says one of the biggest impacts of the autopsy backlog is having key members of these cases move out of state while they await the results.

“The eyewitnesses to the crime in a particular case may move away and we may lose contact and have difficulty contacting those eyewitnesses.”

The officers involved in the investigation could also relocate.

“They move and take another job and sometimes we have to locate those officers and bring them back, sometimes a year or two later,” Davidson Brooks says.

Even the forensic pathologists who perform the medical examinations have moved.

“We’ve had some pathologists leave, and to get their testimony back, we’ve had to resort to either paying their expert witness fees or we’ve actually been granted a lot of grace here lately and been able to do them via Zoom,” says Steven Woodruff, an Investigator for the DA’s Office.

Woodruff says the State Medical Examiner’s Office has been accommodating with requests to have pathologists testify, but it’s another piece added to their heavy workload.

“They spend a lot of time performing the examination and a lot of time writing and drafting reports,” Woodruff says. “And then on top of that, they’ve got to come and testify in courts all over the state.”

The Mississippi State Legislature approved $4 million to go towards addressing the backlog, and Woodruff says he is optimistic about other measures that Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell has taken.

“The beefing up of the number of medical examiners that we have is paramount,” he says. “I believe that the Commissioner of Public Safety has made that a priority, as well as the legislature. They’ve started taking the complaints that they get from DAs offices around the state and are making those changes.”

Davidson Brooks says the district attorney’s office does its best to walk families through the process and explain how they will get justice for their loved ones, no matter how long it might take.

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