DESOTO COUNTY, Miss. — "I would call it a crisis," said Desoto County District Attorney John Champion, as he describes the wait to get autopsy reports back from the State Medical Examiner's office near Jackson, Mississippi.
"Because we are not getting autopsies back until eight months to a year, we are having to delay a large number of cases," said Champion.
He says he was told there used to be four workers handling medical exams across the state. Now there is just one person.
"It's simply because of the lack of help and staff down there. There have been a lot of budget cuts, and people are usually the first to go," said Champion.
Champion says he still has about 20 cases that are still awaiting review by the State Medical Examiner's Office.
It's the reason cases like the shooting death of Ismael Lopez last July at the hands of Southaven police have been put on hold for seven months, waiting for a report on the exact cause of death.
"For every autopsy report left in that backlog, there is a family somewhere," said Attorney Murray Wells, who represents Lopez's family. They are still waiting to hear results of how their loved one was killed so they can move forward. Wells says taxpaying citizens deserve more.
"The obligation of the government is to provide effective and good service to its taxpayer base," said Wells.
"They need funding. That's the most important thing. This needs to be on the legislature," said Champion.
Mississippi State Representative Ashley Henley, from Southaven, says low salaries have been a concern at the State Medical Examiner's office, causing workers to move on to higher paying positions offered by other states.
But she says the State Personnel Board sets government salaries and recent legislation to take that authority from the Board failed to pass.
"I believe this is becoming a crisis within the state that needs to be addressed sooner than later," said Champion.
It's leaving families in limbo.
"It should be concerning to the citizenry as a whole as to what's happening. Why is that not a priority?" asked Wells.
WREG contacted the Mississippi State Medical Examiner to find out more about this backlog. He was testifying in a case and wasn't available.
That brings up another potential problem: The medical examiners often have to appear at trials. With a manpower shortage, that means while they are away autopsies are put on further hold.
WREG will keep digging for answers.