Lawmakers pass bill making “external examinations” legal in Mississippi

Senate Bill 2161 redefines “autopsy," allows for other pathologists to conduct examinations

JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - While critics of Senate Bill 2161 say it’s dangerous and could lead to more unsolved homicides, one supporter believes it will relieve the massive backlog of cases at the state crime lab by redefining the word “autopsy.”

“We know when we open that black bag, whether there’s been an autopsy done or not," said State Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville).

Holland speaks from experience, since he also works as an undertaker in Tupelo.

His usage of the word “autopsy” here means an internal examination where the body of the deceased is cut open and analyzed, leaving behind tell-tale scars.

“They’re doing these things they call ‘visuals’ now, where they just look at the body. Well, there’s no way you can professionally in my opinion make a true sound judgment of what killed a person that way,” Holland said.

While the term “visual autopsy” is typically avoided by medical professionals, Holland’s referring to external examinations, which involve a variety of imaging technologies in addition to visual inspections to determine cause and manner of death.

They’re also minimally invasive, meaning the body is not cut open.

That procedure will soon be perfectly legal in Mississippi, even though a 3 On Your Side investigation revealed last year that visual, or external, examinations have already been performed for several years in some cases, against many coroners’ wishes.

SB 2161, once signed into law, will allow for minimally invasive autopsy procedures depending on what the state medical examiner or pathologist decides to perform based on the case itself.

“The problem is, we’re simply asking the state medical examiner to perform more autopsies than are humanly possible. We’ve tried to employ more people, and that’s difficult. So we continue to do everything we can to get resources to the state crime lab,” State Sen. Hob Bryan (D-Amory) said.

Bryan, the bill’s author, said he believes the efforts will also help them employ more pathologists who can assist with autopsies, too, which previously had only been reserved for board-certified forensic pathologists.

“The hope is that the combination of allowing us to hire more doctors and have a bigger pool from which to draw, will enable us to get more people on board," Bryan said.

Holland remains concerned that pathologists could miss crucial clues by not performing full autopsies in homicide cases.

Coroners interviewed by 3 On Your Side, including Sunflower County Coroner Heather Burton, told us last year that every one of her homicide victims was given a full autopsy, meaning one with an internal examination as well.

However, state law does not require internal examinations in cases of homicide, giving Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Mark LeVaughn full discretion to choose the procedure based on the situation.

Though the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate, finding a supporter to comment proved difficult.

We sent emails to 78 of the representatives and 39 of the senators who voted in favor of the bill.

While more than 35 read our words, saw our investigation, and were asked for comment, only Bryan talked to us.

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