Coast’s first full-time pathologist digging into backlog of death investigations

Dr. Staci Turner is hoping to have South Mississippi's state-of-the-art crime lab open in August.
Updated: Jun. 21, 2020 at 7:12 PM CDT
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GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - Dr. Staci Turner is the answer South Mississippi families and law enforcement agencies have been waiting for. She’s the first full-time pathologist for South Mississippi and, just a few months into her job, she’s already make headway into the huge backlog of death investigations.

“This is beautiful,” said Turner, looking over her new Biloxi lab. “I know that sounds kind of crazy to say about a morgue, but it’s a great facility.”

Turner is excited about her new job but for now, the state-of-the-art facility she will be overseeing sits unused at the crime lab building on Highway 67.

“I wish it would be open tomorrow,” she said.

What’s the hold-up? Getting the right three-person staff in place.

The earliest the morgue will open would be early August. Once that happens, watch for some big changes. It will mean quicker and easier access for law enforcement and for coroners.

“I’m encouraging them to have access to me,” Turner said. “They can call any time with a question, with a problem. If they want to just drop by and chat, if they want to drop by for the cases. I’m here to serve them and to serve the Gulf Coast.”

In the meantime during the pandemic, Turner has been digging into the backlog of unresolved cases on the Coast from 2016 to 2019.

“The two months that I was working from home, I completed all of their Gulf Coast homicides, and that was between 50 and 60 cases,” she said.

However, the work is far from finished.

“There is a horrible backlog, still, throughout the state,” she said.

That’s a fact that surprised Turner after consulting with the lab’s office manager, with cases going back until 2011.

“I asked her the other day, ‘Are we making a significant dent?’ Because I have been working on them for several months, and she just shook her head and said, ‘No,’ " Turner said.

That takes a toll on everyone.

“It’s a great injustice to the families of Mississippi,” she said. “They need the reports on their loved ones. They need death certificates. Whether it was a homicide, whether it was a natural death, they’re all important and the families need them.”

Mississippi Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said he knew the importance of this hire during his time as a state senator.

“We knew there was a large gap for South Mississippi when it came to these services,” he said. “So, it’s wonderful to have Dr. Turner here. She’s going to do an excellent job and she’s really hit the ground running.”

Turner said the job is more than just a process for her.

“It gives me a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I’m providing some help and some voice for those that can no longer speak for themselves,” she said.

Turner added that she hopes to see better salaries to hire and keep pathology technical staff throughout the state.

Tindell said he and his department acknowledge the salary problem and will be working with internal processes and the state legislature to increase budgets.

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