The Bennetts have waited more than two years to find out why their 5 year-old-child died suddenly and unexpectedly.
His backpack still hangs from the dining room chair where he put it when he returned from what would be his last day of kindergarten. Six pairs of sneakers line the wall in his bedroom. Riding toys, an easel and stuffed animals also sit, untouched. The letters of the alphabet are affixed to the walls.
Desmond Bennett was the life of the house, where he lived with his grandparents, mother and aunt.
“Me, myself, I’m a spiritual human being,” said his grandfather, Connie “Pokey” Bennett. “I believe in a higher being. If it was something that was meant to happen, let us know it was natural causes. Not knowing is like reliving it every day.”
When contacted, Mississippi’s Chief Medical Examiner Mark LeVaughn took the blame. He said he will finish compiling all the information that goes into an autopsy report and get it to Harrison County’s coroner as soon as possible.
Coroner Gary Hargrove describes LeVaughn as a dedicated public servant. Hargrove said the Medical Examiner’s Office is in no way to blame for the Bennetts’ long wait for answers.
“If you’re that short-staffed, you’re going to fall behind,” Hargrove said. “It is understaffing and underfunding. Point blank, that’s what it boils down to.”
LeVaughn and two deputy medical examiners perform autopsies and investigate untimely deaths in 82 counties. Their cases include homicides, suicides, accidents, child deaths, deaths of those in custody of law enforcement, workplace deaths and unexplained deaths.
They also are subpoenaed to testify in courtrooms across the state. The state currently has three medical examiners, all forensic pathologists with medical degrees. A 2013 report from the National Medical Examiners Association says Mississippi needs a total of 12 medical examiners to handle its caseload.
The tremendous workload and budget cuts to the medical examiner and state crime lab offices have been documented for years in the media, most recently in an in-depth article by Larrison Campbell for the online news site Mississippi Today.
LeVaughn said he has performed as many as 10 autopsies in a day. He has permission to hire a fourth medical examiner, who would work from the Coast, to replace forensic pathologist Paul McGarry, who died in January 2015.
Nobody had been willing to take the job for the comparatively low salary and high workload in Mississippi. Deputy medical examiners in Mississippi earn $190,000 a year, compared to a national median of $250,000 cited by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In fact, LeVaughn worries about how much longer his two current deputy medical examiners will stay.
“I am terrified, literally terrified, that these two will find jobs for better pay and less work and leave,” he said. “I guarantee you we have the highest workload of any (forensic) doctors in the United States.”
The Bennetts just want to know what killed Desmond.
He had started kindergarten two months earlier at Bel-Aire Elementary School. “He hated the weekends,” his mom, Raven Bennett said.
Desmond cried the first Saturday after kindergarten started because he did not realize he would have the weekends off. He loved to learn and socialize.
Each day when he came home, he told his mom about one of his new friends, and he was always ready to get started with his homework.
His teacher said he was one of her top three students. Desmond, who had always been a healthy child, got his school shots and a good medical report from his pediatrician before school started.
He started complaining about headaches and had fever off and on, beginning in September. He was also coughing.
His mother took him to a medical clinic, where he was diagnosed with a sinus infection.
He was in his room playing video games on Oct. 11, a Sunday. He told his mom he had a headache. Raven Bennett thought he was taking a nap when his grandmother, Beverly Bennett, got home from work and asked about him.
Raven Bennett said he had been quiet for 30 to 45 minutes. She went to check on him. “When I found him,” she said, “his lips were already blue.”
The family called 911 and tried to revive him, but Desmond was gone. His body had to be taken to Jackson for an autopsy, as has been the case since McGarry’s death, even though the Coast has a fully equipped morgue built after Hurricane Katrina.
The autopsy of Desmond’s body failed to reveal a cause of death. LeVaughn collected blood and tissue samples for examination. The crime lab finished the blood work in November 2015.
Still, Hargrove said he had no cause of death to share with the family. He is waiting on the autopsy report, which will tie together all the forensic work completed on Desmond’s body. The crime lab said it sends tissue samples to a Texas laboratory.
Hargrove checks his computer daily for autopsy reports.
The Bennetts call the coroner’s office at least twice a month to find out if the results are in. Pokey Bennett said the office has told him that his is not the only family waiting for results.
Coast Sen. Brice Wiggins, who worked to get funding for the medical examiner’s position in South Mississippi, said he is already collecting information, including salary comparisons for medical examiners, to work on next year’s budget.
He said he had no idea that a family had waited more than two years for an autopsy report.
“We as a Legislature need to be smart about this,” Wiggins said. “I understand the problems we have, that the revenues aren’t what we would hope, but this is a core function of government. The victims and families haven’t been given the service they’re entitled to.”