Autopsy backlog plagues Mississippi, with worst delays in US

Apr 30, 2022, 8:59 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 11:02 am
BANGKOK, THAILAND - JULY 28: A mortuary technician in PPE transfers sealed bags containing bodies s...
BANGKOK, THAILAND - JULY 28: A mortuary technician in PPE transfers sealed bags containing bodies suspected to be infected with Covid-19 into the autopsy room in the mortuary at Thammasat University Hospital in Pathum Thani province in the north of Bangkok on July 28, 2021 in Pathum Thani, Thailand. Amidst the rapid spread of the delta variants that is wreaking havoc in Southeast Asia, the daily cases of newly infected people and daily mortalities in Thailand have been continuously climbing. where forensic doctors are struggling to handle the large influx of bodies with about half are infected with the coronavirus, suggesting the possibility of larger infection among the population than the reported official numbers. (Photo by Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — After Truitt Pace admitted to law enforcement that he beat and shot his wife, her family expected a swift conviction. The 34-year-old mother of three’s tiny frame was so bruised and traumatized that the funeral home suggested a closed casket. But as months went by, prosecutors told Marsha Harbour’s family they were waiting on a key piece of evidence: the medical examiner’s autopsy report.

National standards recommend most autopsy reports be completed within 60 days. Prosecutors in Harbour’s case waited for a year.

Across Mississippi, many families wait even longer. An Associated Press analysis based on state data and documents, as well as dozens of interviews with officials and residents, found that Mississippi’s system has long operated in violation of national standards for death investigations, accruing a severe backlog of autopsies and reports.

Autopsies that should take days take weeks. Autopsy reports that should take months take a year or longer, as in Harbour’s case. Too few pathologists are doing too many autopsies. Some cases are transferred hundreds of miles to neighboring states for reports without their family’s knowledge.

The Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office was waiting for about 1,300 reports from as far back as 2011, records sent to AP in early April show. Around 800 of those involve homicides — meaning criminal cases are incomplete.

District attorneys have resigned themselves to long waits: “We’re at a point now where we’re happy if it’s only a year,” said Luke Williamson, who’s been a prosecutor for 14 years in northern Mississippi.

The National Association of Medical Examiners, the office that accredits U.S. death investigations offices, dictates that 90% of autopsy reports should be returned within 60 to 90 days.

Mississippi’s office has never been accredited. The majority of U.S. medical examiner agencies, underfunded and facing a shortage of forensic pathologists, are unaccredited. States such as Georgia have raised the alarm about report delays of up to six months. But nowhere is the issue more severe than in Mississippi.

Mississippi’s delays are an “emergency-level” concern, said Dr. James Gill, the association’s 2021 president. “That’s a disaster situation where you need to do something drastic.”

Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell is a former Mississippi Court of Appeals judge who stepped into his role in May 2020. He said eliminating backlogs is his top priority. Working as a judge, he saw trials delayed while prosecutors awaited reports.

“Families deserve better. I’m sorry that they’ve had to experience delays in laying to rest loved ones.”

Tindell said he’s instituted a policy that all reports must be back within 90 days. Using contractor pathologists in other states, the office began whittling down the backlog. Tindell said around 500 cases have been completed since summer.

But Tindell said it’s a challenge trying to fix old problems while facing new ones: the pandemic and increasing violent crime.

Mississippi saw 597 homicides in 2021 and 578 in 2020 — record numbers for the state of 3 million. That’s compared with 434 in 2019 and 382 in 2018.

Arkansas, with a similar population, had 347 homicides in 2021 and 386 in 2020.

From 2020 to April 2022, Arkansas employed five to seven pathologists performing autopsies. Mississippi employed two to three, as people left jobs.

Tindell said the forensics laboratory and medical examiner’s office haven’t been a state priority for funding or staffing in over a decade. The forensic laboratory’s budget has essentially remained unchanged since 2008.

But during Mississippi’s 2022 legislative session, lawmakers approved $4 million that must be used to address backlogged cases.

Like most states, Mississippi does not perform an autopsy — a post-mortem surgical procedure by a forensic pathologist to determine cause of death — for all people. Autopsies are reserved for homicides, suicides, deaths of children and those in correctional facilities, and other unexpected cases. Forensic pathologists are responsible for performing autopsies at Mississippi’s two medical examiner offices — one in the Jackson metro area, one on the coast.

After the autopsy, pathologists complete a report explaining their findings and results, including an official cause of death. Reports can help determine whether a death was an accident, a suicide or a homicide. They shed light on child deaths, or show whether a person accused of murder acted in self-defense.

In the Harbour case, the autopsy report was the critical piece of evidence after Pace claimed self-defense for shooting his wife.

At the December 2021 trial where Pace was sentenced to life in prison, a medical examiner said Harbour suffered from blunt force trauma wounds consistent with being beaten before she was shot.

Harbour had endured months of abuse. She once went to a domestic violence shelter. But she worried for her children’s safety and never went to the police.

Because Pace had no criminal record, he was released on bond days after his arrest.

Harbour’s stepmother, Denise Spears, said she and her family felt dejected as they went to the mailbox month after month to find notices that the trial was being pushed back. Pace didn’t stand trial until more than three years after killing his wife.

One of the worst parts was explaining to her grandchildren why the man who killed their mother was able to live free for years, Spears said.

“It was hard for me to explain to them,” Spears said, “because I couldn’t understand it either.”

Tindell said problems won’t be fixed until the state is able to hire more pathologists. The National Medical Examiners Association standards recommend that pathologists perform no more than 250 autopsies a year.

In 2021, two Mississippi pathologists performed 461 and 421 autopsies. Arkansas’s six pathologists completed an average of 282 each.

To meet demand, the Mississippi Medical Examiner’s Office has been forced to send bodies to neighboring states like Arkansas. In 2021, 284 autopsies were completed by contractor pathologists.

The National Medical Examiner’s Association recommends autopsies be completed within 72 hours. Turnaround time in Mississippi has exceeded three weeks in some cases.

Clayton Cobler — coroner in Lauderdale County, where Harbour was killed — said families try calling the medical examiner’s office for answers about the status of autopsies and reports, and they often don’t hear back. Each of Mississippi’s 82 counties has an elected coroner responsible for collecting and transporting bodies to the medical examiner’s office. They end up acting as liaisons with families and answering desperate calls, Cobler said.

“More and more coroners or long-term coroners are saying, ’I’m done,'” said Cobler, who recently decided not to run for reelection. “It’s too heartbreaking.”


Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

National News

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed his upcoming trip to China in response to the fl...
Jennifer Hansler, Kevin Liptak, Jeremy Herb, Kylie Atwood, Jim Sciutto and Oren Liebermann

Blinken postpones trip to Beijing after Chinese spy balloon spotted over US

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has postponed his trip to China in response to a suspected Chinese spy balloon.
1 day ago
An Iowa Alzheimer's care facility is facing a $10,000 fine after pronouncing a woman dead who was l...
Hannah Sarisohn

Residential care facility faces fine after woman pronounced dead found gasping for air in body bag

An Iowa Alzheimer's care facility is facing a $10,000 fine after pronouncing a woman dead who was later found alive when a funeral director unzipped her body bag, according to documents from the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals.
1 day ago
Three bodies found on Feb. 2 in the Detroit area are believed to be those of three rappers who have...
Joe Sutton and Emma Tucker

Bodies found in apartment identified as 3 Michigan rappers missing for almost 2 weeks, police say

Three bodies found in the Detroit area this week were identified by authorities Friday as those of three rappers who were missing for almost two weeks, according to Michigan State Police.
1 day ago
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Vis...
Associated Press

Authorities: 2 arrested in California shooting that killed 6

A California sheriff says two gang members suspected in the massacre of six people last month in central California have been arrested, one after a gunbattle.
1 day ago
Davion Irvin was arrested late Thursday night and charged with six counts of animal cruelty-non-liv...
Chris Boyette and Vivian Kuo

Suspect arrested in case of tamarin monkeys missing from Dallas Zoo, police say

A 24-year-old man has been arrested in Dallas and charged in connection with the suspected theft of a pair of emperor tamarin monkeys that were recovered unharmed this week in an abandoned home a day after they vanished from the Dallas Zoo, police said.
1 day ago
A suspected Chinese high altitude balloon floats over Billings, Montana, on February 1. (Larry Maye...
Oren Liebermann, Haley Britzky, Michael Conte and Nectar Gan, CNN

Pentagon tracking suspected Chinese spy balloon over the US

The U.S. is tracking a suspected Chinese high-altitude surveillance balloon over the continental United States, defense officials said on Thursday.
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

vintage photo of lighting showroom featuring chandeliers, lamps, wall lights and mirrors...
Lighting Design

History of Lighting Design | Over 25 Years of Providing Utah With the Latest Trends and Styles

Read about the history of Lighting Design, a family-owned and operated business that paved the way for the lighting industry in Utah.
Fiber Optical cables connected to an optic ports and Network cables connected to ethernet ports...
Brian Huston, CE and Anthony Perkins, BICSI

Why Every Business Needs a Structured Cabling System

A structured cabling system benefits businesses by giving you faster processing speeds and making your network more efficient and reliable.
notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 Reasons You May Want to Consider Apartment Life Over Owning a Home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to Choose What MBA Program is Right for You: Take this Quiz Before You Apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Autopsy backlog plagues Mississippi, with worst delays in US