DNA, crime lab proposals headed to Miss. lawmakers

Published 12:25 am Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Many lawmakers and state officials agree that Mississippi’s criminal investigation system needs revamping, specifically the way DNA evidence is handled, how the state crime lab is funded and what to do about the long-vacant state medical examiner’s office.

Addressing any of those concerns will require a lot of extra money, and that’s something the state likely won’t have when the fiscal year begins July 1 amid ongoing recession.

Attorney General Jim Hood is to go before a panel of lawmakers on Monday to discuss his proposals to better finance the crime lab and the state medical examiner’s office. Both are part of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.

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Hood formed a task force earlier this year and has now spent months traveling to other states to gather ideas and figure out how much it would cost the state to undertake improvements.

The lab’s current budget is $9.3 million, including the state medical examiner’s office. Slightly more than $2 million comes from special funds, including federal grants. That compares with a $13.5 million budget in neighboring Arkansas, a state with a similar population.

“We’re going to come in with that bare minimum,” Hood said, referring to the amount he believes is needed to properly fund the crime lab. “We’ll be suggesting some revenue streams that will be funded by the criminals themselves. We know that the general fund can’t stand that much of an increase.”

The state’s system drew criticism this year after two men — both convicted of murder in the separate killings of two toddlers — were exonerated.

The cases also cast scrutiny on Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist who has handled the bulk of the autopsies in criminal investigations for several years. Mississippi has not had a medical examiner since 1995.

The New York-based Innocence Project filed a complaint against Hayne with the state Board of Medical Licensure. The group points to several cases they say demonstrate Hayne’s flawed work, including the killings of the two 3-year-old girls.

Kennedy Brewer was convicted and sentenced to death in 1995 for the rape and murder of his girlfriend’s daughter in Noxubee County. He was convicted after Hayne identified what he believed to be human bite marks on the girl’s body. An odontologist, Michael West, testified that Brewer made the impressions using his top front teeth.

A panel of forensic experts later examined the Brewer case and said the wounds on the victim were not human bites at all. DNA evidence showed he didn’t sexually assault the child.

In the other case, Levon Brooks was convicted of murder, based mostly on bite mark evidence given by Hayne and West. Brooks also was cleared after a third Noxubee County man allegedly confessed to both slayings.

Hayne was removed as a state designated pathologist in August.

The Noxubee County cases, in large part, led lawmakers to appoint a task force to examine ways of better collecting and preserving DNA evidence. The group included private attorneys, inmate advocates and lawmakers.

A report released by the panel last week recommended the state require the preservation of DNA evidence in all felony cases. It didn’t recommend that state law require law enforcement agencies to collect DNA, but that’s often done in felony cases.

Rebecca Brown, a policy analyst for the Innocence Project, said about half the nation has DNA preservation laws, but they vary in substance and scope. She said laws were passed in Arizona, Colorado and South Carolina last year.

“Considering the fact that the DNA task force represented a broad range of stakeholders, this represents a huge step forward for justice in Mississippi,” Brown said.

House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, said he wants more details about the proposals.

Blackmon said he favors preserving DNA, but has questions about DNA collection, including whether every one arrested and charged with a felony will have to submit to DNA testing.

Blackmon said preserving all DNA in felony cases will impose a “tremendous cost” on the state.

“In this economy, it’s going to be tough to find money for that,” he added.