JACKSON, Miss. -- Mississippi is expected to hire its first medical examiner in 15 years by Nov. 1, and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson said he's hopeful at least two other associate pathologists will soon be on board to help handle the state's autopsy cases.
"We have one doctor who has an engagement letter to come here Nov. 1. I'm interviewing another doctor this week in Houston (Texas), and a third has expressed an interest in coming here," Simpson said Tuesday.
Mississippi's contract with a Tennessee-based company that had been performing autopsies for the state ends Friday. Simpson said Global Forensics exercised an option to get out of the contract.
"We've not had any problems with the quality of their work at all. The doctors commute from Tennessee to Mississippi. It has given the coroners some difficulty in having the line of communication they're used to," Simpson said.
It's been nearly two years since the state terminated its contract with Dr. Steven Hayne, a pathologist who came under fire for his work in several criminal cases, including ones that resulted in the exoneration of two men who had been convicted of capital murder.
Mississippi last had a medical examiner in 1995. The void had been filled by Hayne, who handled the majority of autopsies for the state's criminal investigations.
The state's forensic investigation system came under scrutiny for Hayne's work. At the time, he didn't have American Board of Pathology certification in forensic pathology. Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a requirement that pathologists performing autopsies for the state must be board-certified.
Simpson had previously said the state would pay $250,000 for a medical examiner. On Tuesday, he wouldn't disclose the latest salary being discussed.
Simpson said the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson will provide autopsy and medical services for the state medical examiner's office.
Simpson said the search for a medical examiner was hampered, in part, because there's a shortage of board-certified physicians. Simpson also said the state's contract with Global Forensics had required the company to assist with recruiting pathologists.
"That hadn't been happening," he said.
Earlier this year, Dr. Bruce Levy, who had been operating the Tennessee company, was arrested for possession of marijuana. Simpson suspended the state's contract with the company.
Simpson said the contract was re-negotiated and one of the terms stipulated Levy could hold no stock in the company that was providing services to Mississippi.
Local coroners said it's past time for Mississippi to have a medical examiner.
"The system that we operate under was designed to have a medical examiner in charge. If there was a discrepancy on a death between a coroner and a family, the medical examiner would hear the arguments. The medical examiner is where the buck stops," said Greg Merchant, the coroner in Lowndes County and president of the Mississippi Coroners Association.
Monroe County Coroner Alan Gurley said the state actually needs to hire four or five pathologists. He said Global Forensics had a rotating staff.
"Like him or not, Hayne was basically doing what five or six are doing," Gurley said. "Even for a week, we can't be without."