Saturday, July 12, 2008
On television, the popular CSI shows give the impression that high-tech tools and amply staffed forensic departments are on the job to solve crime scene investigations.
But, in Mississippi, that's fiction, not fact.
The inadequacy of Mississippi's "CSI" would make a sad, and scary, episode if it were presented on television.
Enough so that Attorney General Jim Hood is forming a task force that will meet Aug. 21 at Hood's office to study the financial needs of the state medical examiner's office and the Mississippi Crime Lab.
To begin with, since 1995, Mississippi has had no state medical examiner, despite being authorized to hire one.
Dr. Steven Hayne, who has performed most of Mississippi's autopsies for more than a decade, has been criticized in some quarters. Since there is no state medical examiner, by his own count, each year, Hayne does about 1,500 autopsies, an impossible standard for quality work.
Because of a lack of funding, the Crime Lab hasn't been able to hire as many DNA analysts as it needs.
The state even lacks a handwriting expert. "District attorneys with forgery cases have to plead them out or get an out-of-state expert," Hood says.
The state of Mississippi's forensic crime investigations is a grim reality.
And it's not limited to the upper reaches. At the local level, the quality of the elected coroner system begs review, as well.
Mississippi's system of criminal investigations is coming under even broader scrutiny since the Innocence Project has brought to light a disturbing list of wrongful convictions - including the death penalty - involving flatly wrong forensic conclusions.
The New York-based organization says it is reviewing 111 cases in Mississippi.
That is serious, especially for those who believe the state should be "tough" on crime.
Faulty forensics can stymie imposition of the death penalty, for example. Who would want to convict the wrong person of a capital crime? Or have even a shadow of a doubt?
In a worst-case scenario, unless Mississippi improves its criminal investigations from local coroners to a fully funded, staffed and equipped state medical examiner's office, it could be forced to halt all executions. [Mark Godsey]