State to hire first medical examiner in 15 years

Published 2:49 pm Friday, October 22, 2010

One of the biggest obstacles to making Mississippi’s judicial system more efficient is apparently being addressed as Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson announced recently the intent of the state to hire its first medical examiner in 15 years by Nov. 1.

Simpson also said that at least two other associate pathologists will soon be on board to help handle the state’s autopsy cases. The state’s contract with the Tennessee-based Global Forensics — which had been handling state autopsies on a contract basis since 2008 — expired Oct. 15.

Mississippi has not had a state medical examiner since 1995, when Dr. Emily Ward served as the state medical examiner from August 1993 to June 1995. Ward was the fifth medical examiner to leave the post since 1979.

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Ward and previous medical examiners ran into problems with local county coroners and private pathologists who got into turf battles with various state medical examiners over state versus local control of death investigations.

Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a requirement that pathologists performing autopsies for the state hold American Board of Pathology certification in forensic pathology.

That’s a key step toward restoring the position of state medical examiner to a position of autonomy and freedom from political interference that has contributed to Mississippi’s inability to keep a qualified medical examiner on the state payroll — that and prior unwillingness on the part of the Legislature to pay a competitive salary.

The Legislature seems to be on board with adequate pay and procuring a qualified candidate.

But Mississippi’s reputation as a place where county coroners make life difficult for a state medical examiner persists. Yet it remains vital that a board certified forensic pathologist run the state medical examiner’s office in a manner to assure uniformity of standards and practices in death investigations regardless of resistance from county coroners. …

Politics has hampered death investigations in Mississippi for far too long. The hiring of a certified state medical examiner is long overdue and a giant step forward.