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Mississippi’s chief medical examiner says office is underfunded

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The Mississippi Crime Laboratory and Medical Examiner’s Office. Photo courtesy of Dr. John Lewis DDS.

Ellen Simmons
Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
esimmons@go.olemiss.edu

Mississippi’s chief medical examiner said more forensic pathologists are needed in the U.S. and abroad, and his own office is underfunded.

Dr. Mark Levaughn, the state’s chief medical examiner, is an Ohio native who was trained in pathology, the study of disease in the human body, at West Virginia University Medical Center. He studied forensics at the University of Tennessee. Forensic pathologists investigate trauma.

Levaughn said one problem he has encountered in his state role is difficulty securing funding from the state legislature. He said the office is underfunded, and one of the problems they face when trying to recruit new people is they are underpaid.

Another issue that has turned some away from working in Mississippi is the department’s shaky past, Levaughn said. The state has had trouble in the past with faulty medical examiners, but he said he’s worked to change that in his five years as chief medical examiner.

Being board certified is a requirement for employment in his office, but Levaughn said he would consider someone who has qualified for boards, given that they showed the potential to pass board exams.

There are currently four members on Levaughn’s staff, but he sometimes asks other professionals, such as Dr. John Lewis, a forensic dentist, for help on certain cases.

The MDPS website reports that the State Medical Examiner’s Office performs approximately 1,450 autopsies annually. The mission of the office to ensure that deaths affecting the public interest are properly investigated and reported according to law. This includes homicides, suicides, accidents, child deaths, in-custody deaths, workplace deaths, and unexplained deaths, the website reads.

Although there are a significant amount of homicides, he said the majority of their cases deal with death by natural causes. The majority of teen deaths investigated are the result of motor vehicle accidents, he said.

Levaughn also testifies in court. His job is to state medical facts about the bodies he examines. He knows little to no details about the cases, and is only there to show medical evidence, he said.

Levaughn is one of almost 500 people in the country certified by the American Board of Pathology to practice forensic pathology. The board was founded in 1936 to “promote the field of pathology and the continuing competency of practicing pathologists.”

Levaughn was working in Buffalo, New York as a deputy chief medical examiner when he heard about the job opening in Mississippi. He was assigned the position in 2011.  

He said more forensic pathologists are needed in the U.S. and abroad. There are job opportunities available all over the globe, including Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan, he said.

The Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office is a division of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety, according to the MDPS website. It is located in Jackson in the same building as the State Crime Lab.

The office currently has 11 employees, including the four pathologists. The chief and three deputy chief medical examiners are licensed physicians and have multiple ABP certifications, including forensic pathology.

Levaughn works with Assistant Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Brent Davis, who was recruited by Levaughn after he witnessed Davis testify in court. Levaughn said he almost immediately asked Davis if he would move to Mississippi.

“I know my boss has my back,” said Davis, adding that Levaughn is considerate of others’ opinions.

State medical examiners perform postmortem examinations that are requested by the coroner of the county in which the death occurred to determine the cause and manner of death.

The state office now functions as a mixed coroner/medical examiner system. The county coroners’ offices from Mississippi’s 82 counties are served by the State Medical Examiner’s Office to assist with medical-legal death investigations.

The office also monitors and maintains the certification of all coroners and deputy coroners in the state and provides education, including a 40-hour training seminar, to newly-elected coroners.

 

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