Despite tough rhetoric on crime from state leaders ahead of the November 7 general election, Mississippi continues to grapple with a backlog of incomplete homicide autopsy reports, raising concerns for law enforcement, legal professionals, and families affected by violent crimes.
Autopsy reports play a crucial role in criminal investigations, enabling police officers and prosecutors to hold perpetrators accountable. These reports also provide families with essential information about their loved one’s death, affecting matters such as insurance claims and settling the deceased’s affairs. However, delays in completing autopsies in Mississippi persist as a persistent issue.
The National Association of Medical Examiners, responsible for accrediting U.S. death investigations offices, recommends that 90% of autopsy reports should be returned within 60 to 90 days. Unfortunately, Mississippi’s homicide autopsies continue to fall short of these national standards, even as crime remains a central issue in the state’s legislative and campaign discourse.
Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican seeking re-election, emphasizes his support for law enforcement in his public addresses and campaign endeavors. Despite the rhetoric, Mississippi’s death investigation system has long struggled to meet national standards, resulting in a substantial backlog of autopsies and reports. Alarmingly, Mississippi holds the highest homicide mortality rate in the nation, as per recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell, appointed by Reeves in 2020, has acknowledged the “unacceptable” backlog and initiated a policy requiring autopsy reports to be completed within 90 days. However, records obtained by The Associated Press reveal that as of October 1, 2023, Mississippi had 51 homicide autopsy reports incomplete for over 60 days and 45 awaiting completion for more than 90 days. Additionally, three autopsy reports for 2023 took over 90 days to finalize.
In the midst of this challenge, Democrat Brandon Presley, Reeves’ gubernatorial opponent, has criticized Tindell’s appointment and called for professionals rather than political allies to lead state agencies. Tindell responded by framing Presley’s stance as an attack on law and order.
Delayed autopsy reports pose bureaucratic challenges for both prosecutors and defense attorneys, affecting critical determinations such as the cause and manner of death. These reports can influence whether a murder accusation relates to self-defense, substantially impacting both the accused and the accuser. District Attorney Jody Owens, serving Hinds County, Mississippi’s largest county, emphasized that autopsy reports for homicides in his jurisdiction rarely meet the 90-day standard, with some pending for years.