Harrison County

South Mississippi lacks a medical examiner. Here’s why

Terrence Packer with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations crime lab crosses the crime scene tape where a body was discovered in a Bay St. Louis neighborhood in March 2009.
Terrence Packer with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations crime lab crosses the crime scene tape where a body was discovered in a Bay St. Louis neighborhood in March 2009. Sun Herald File

The South Mississippi Medical Examiner’s lab in Harrison County remains without a forensic pathologist more than five months after the state thought it had hired one.

Officials in February said Kenneth H. Clark, who was working for the Onondaga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Syracuse, N.Y., had been offered the job with the state Medical Examiner’s Office. At the time, officials said all they were waiting for was for Clark to pass a background check and obtain certification by the state.

In June, Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain said Clark had turned down the position. He has yet to say why Clark did that or if the state is still looking for a pathologist to fill the position.

The job wasn’t listed on the state Personnel Board on Friday. But Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said he believed the state was looking for a medical examiner but he didn’t know any of the details.

“That’s up to the Medical Examiner’s Office,” he said.

South Mississippi has been without an associate medical examiner for the lab at the Department of Public Safety Complex north of Biloxi since the 2015 death of Dr. Paul McGarry, who had been conducting most of the autopsies on the Coast. But McGarry never got to use the state of the art lab at the new complex because the Legislature never appropriated money to run it. It did after he died and the job search for a medical examiner began.

So, coroners and investigators have to go to the main lab in Pearl for autopsies, something that costs them time and money.

For example, Harrison County in June signed a contract with Assurance Transportation of Gulfport to take bodies to autopsies at a cost of at least $540 per trip. Each additional body costs $300.

The state also charges counties $1,000 for an autopsy plus $150 for the use of the facilities. Transportation costs $650.

Police investigators told the Sun Herald in October that traveling to the Jackson area for an autopsy consumes at least a whole day and the city has to pay for gas.

The relatively low pay, $190,000 a year, has made it hard for Mississippi to hire someone. Before Clark, Chief Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn said two others also turned down offers. The median pay for medical examiners is $250,000, according to the Bureau of Labor.

And, there’s a nationwide shortage of medical examiners, and they are heaving to deal with an ever mounting number of cases because of opioid overdoses.

Paul Hampton: 228-284-7296, @JPaulHampton

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