Crime lab

Two local murder cases delayed by overloaded, understaffed lab, DA says

At least two Jones County murder cases are at a standstill because of an ongoing “crisis at the crime lab,” District Attorney Tony Buckley said.

Many district attorneys across the state are experiencing delays of up to three years to receive autopsy reports, Buckley said after a recent conference with DAs and the head of the crime lab, Seth Howell. There is a “critical shortage” of manpower at the lab and a “tremendous overload” of cases for them to provide test results so cases can go to court.

“It’s a big problem, and it’s only going to get worse,” Buckley said, noting that funding is the problem, not the lab. “People need to know about this. They get upset by prisoners being released early because of budget cuts, but now we can’t even get them to prison.”

Gregory O’Neal Jones, 47, of Vossburg was supposed to go on trial for murder this week in Jones County Circuit Court. He is accused of standing over 31-year-old Jarion Fuentes and shooting him multiple times as he begged for his life in front of his four children at a mobile home park just north of Laurel in November 2017. 

But the case is having to be continued because, almost two years later, there is still no autopsy report, Buckley said.

“We just got the gunshot tests back on that case two days ago,” Buckley said on Thursday.

The DA’s office is also still waiting on crime-lab results in the second-degree murder case against 43-year-old Whitney G. Kitchens. He is accused of shooting and killing his wife, 43-year-old Erin Galaher, at their home in the Oak Bowery Community in February 2018. 

Both suspects are claiming self-defense, so that makes crime-lab evidence even more critical, Buckley said.

The five-term DA knew that there were staffing problems at the lab, but Howell provided information to DA’s from across the state that didn’t give them hope that things will get better any time soon.

Buckley shared some statistics to put the lab’s shortage in perspective: 

• The lab in Mississippi (population 3 million) has four DNA analysts, while Alabama (4.8 million) has 35 and Louisiana (4 million) has 41. The neighboring states have higher populations, but not close to the ratio reflected in their crime-lab employee numbers, Buckley pointed out.

• Mississippi has only four firearms specialists to conduct tests and provide reports for cases across the state, while neighboring states employ numbers similar to the breakdown of DNA analysts, plus their salaries are significantly higher. For instance, a firearms technician with two years of experience makes $64,480 in Louisiana’s lab. The same tech makes $31,000 in Mississippi, according to Howell’s statistics.

• The shortage of manpower is happening at a time that Mississippi is on pace to have the highest per-capita murder rate in the country, Buckley said. There were 418 homicides in the state last year and there had been 278 as of mid-August — a rate of about nine every seven days, which would be 450-plus in a year. There are only two medical examiners to do all of the autopsies.

• The majority of homicides are committed with guns, and there are about twice as many shootings as there are homicides, Howell reported. Cases that are “shootouts” can take two experts as long as two weeks to compile the information they need for court, Buckley said.

• The state lab is down from 17 drug analysts to seven, with a caseload that is four times the volume of the DNA and firearms experts. The lab receives 1,000 drug cases per month, so the backlog increases by 400-500 monthly, Howell reported. By July 2021, the backlog is estimated to be 15,000 cases. “It’s staggering,” Buckley said.

• The lab has lost 15 trained employees in the last 18 months — six in the last six weeks of May and June to higher-paying jobs. Training programs take one to two years to complete and the hiring process takes six months, Howell reported, “As we replace a vacated position, it will take two years before you will see a new productive analyst in court,” he wrote.

• And that brings up another problem with the low numbers in the labs — experts are consistently called away to testify in cases across the state, which means they can’t be conducting tests in the lab.

• The state crime lab’s four offices — Jackson, Meridian, Batesville and the Coast — operate on a budget of just over $7.1 million per year. They had to get $1.5 million from the Department of Public Safety to stay afloat last year, Howell told the District Attorneys.

Despite all of this information, there hasn’t been much dialogue about the issue between gubernatorial or legislative candidates, and that’s disappointing, Buckley said.

“We can applaud all day about cutting income taxes,” he said, “but we will stop applauding if we can’t fund the crime lab. You can cut this and cut that … but at some point you have to ask, ‘What have we achieved?’”

Crime victims aren’t the only ones being affected, he said. If there’s a suspicious death and an insurance company asks for an autopsy report, it is taking two to three years to get a report, he said. Beneficiaries could “struggle to survive” and lose their home and other assets while waiting on the payout, Buckley said.

One of the “principles of government is to protect the people,” Buckley said, so that’s a basic reason candidates should be addressing the issue.

“Whoever you vote for, you should ask them what they intend to do about the crime lab,” Buckley said. “It’s directly affecting all of us.”

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