More money sought for medical examiner’s office

Published 11:58 pm Monday, January 12, 2009

The Mississippi Department of Public Safety is willing to pay about $250,000 a year to hire a new medical examiner at the state Crime Lab, but the money lawmakers approved to help cover the salary isn’t guaranteed long-term.

DPS Commissioner Steve Simpson said two candidates will interview next week for the job that’s been vacant since 1995.

Lawmakers provided $500,000 in one-time money toward the medical examiner’s office in the current fiscal year.

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The facility came under scrutiny in 2007 after two men who had been convicted of murder were exonerated on the charges. Their convictions were based, in part, on testimony from Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist who had handled the bulk of Mississippi’s autopsies for years because the state didn’t have a medical examiner.

Simpson said he’s asking lawmakers to make the additional funding permanent. His request comes in a year when lawmakers are searching for ways to pay for state services and programs during a national recession. At least one key lawmaker supports the additional funding.

House Appropriations Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said he plans to generate up to $2 million for the medical examiner’s office and the state Crime Lab by raising some fees. Stringer didn’t have a list of which fees would be targeted, but he said DUI would likely be among them. Attorney General Jim Hood has recommended to lawmakers to increase the cost of criminal citations to create a revenue source from the lab.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said he considers the Crime Lab a “critical” issue, but not the most important this session.

“Our priority is to do what we can to cover existing programs before expanding to new ones,” Nunnelee said.

Most of the state’s 82 counties have a coroner who can conduct autopsies and look into deaths that are not the result of natural causes. The medical examiner’s office comes into play when law enforcement agencies ask for evidence tests or autopsies in criminal cases.

An October report from the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review said the medical examiner’s office historically has been underfunded.

Hayne, whose contract was terminated with the state in August, had said he conducted about 1,500 autopsies a year, which is four times the recommended standard.

Hayne was criticized after evidence surfaced indicating Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, both of Noxubee County, were innocent of charges they killed two girls in the 1990s. The men were convicted in separate cases. Authorities said a third Noxubee County man allegedly confessed to both crimes in 2007.

Simpson said he believes lawmakers will approve his request for extra money because “they have been keenly aware of the needs of getting a full-time medical examiner.”

The state has signed a contract with Forensic Medical Inc. of Nashville to conduct autopsies in Jackson, and so far there’s been no backlog of cases.

“The changes that we made after Dr. Hayne was no longer performing services have worked well,” Simpson said.