May 9, 2008: Mississippi DNA Task Force formed
March 20, 2009: DNA Preservation and Post-Conviction Testing signed into law
Preserved evidence can help solve closed cases – and exonerate the innocent. Preserving biological evidence from crime scenes is critically important because DNA can provide the best evidence of innocence – or guilt – upon review of a case. On March 20, 2009, Governor Haley Barbour signed into law a bill that requires the state to preserve biological or DNA evidence gathered in felony investigations. Evidence was often discarded or somehow adulterated after a conviction, impeding the efforts of scientific advancement in proving actual innocence. This legislation effectively preserves evidence in all post-conviction cases. This further benefits Mississippi because, in 2004, Congress passed the Justice for All Act (H.R. 5107), which provides financial incentives for states to preserve evidence – and withholds those same monies for states that do not adequately preserve evidence.
Despite the acclaim that DNA testing receives nationwide, many prisoners are denied the ability to secure testing on any preserved evidence, even when it might display proof of actual innocence or irrefutable guilt and an inmate pays for the costs incurred for testing. Routinely, motions for such testing are simply denied. This law, Miss. Code s. 99-49-1, protects a person’s right to order DNA tests on evidence that might ultimately free them from wrongful imprisonment. MIP’s legislative team worked hard for this law to take effect, and our current filings are due in part to the successful passage of this bill.
March 30, 2009. Compensation statute provides funds to wrongfully-convicted.
Little compares to the plight of the wrongfully convicted. Notwithstanding the vast emotional loss, the opportunities available to build skills necessary for a productive life, too, are lost. Often, they are released with nothing more than their personal effects from many years spent in prison. Many exonerees have no money, housing, transportation, or health insurance; limited education and job skills; and a lingering prison record despite innocence. Mississippi rectified this by passing a compensation law to assist exonerees in rebuilding their lives after suffering wrongful imprisonment. Otherwise, the only means of recompense was an often-lengthy civil suit against the state. MIP helped to introduce legislation that granted compensation to the wrongly convicted. The bill was passed in 2009.
March 25, 2010: Requiring board licensing for pathologists performing state-funded autopsies.
Staff Medical Examiner Reform
This Spring, Haley Barbour signed into law bill 1456, an effort on the part of the Mississippi Innocence Project to create a state-wide standard for hired pathologists in criminal cases. The bill is simple: pathologists performing autopsies must now be certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. Just as lawyers must be members of a state bar to practice law, and doctors must pass medical boards to practice medicine, the requirement sets a reasonable standard of competency and accountability for pathologists working in Mississippi.
This bill is particularly relevant to our work at the Mississippi Innocence Project, as we’ve seen how a poorly performed autopsy can lead to a wrongful conviction.
November 4, 2010, the Mississippi Innocence Project, in conjunction with the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the University of Mississippi School of Law and the Office of Public Safety, hosted a forum on the current state of the medical examiner’s office.
The panelists included Dr. Ross Zumwalt, Medical Investigator for the State of New Mexico, Dr. Lindsey Thomas, Regional Medical Examiner of Minnesota, and Dr. Steven Bigler, Chair of UMMC’s Department of Pathology. Commissioner Steve Simpson also spoke.
The panel help pave the way for House Bill 922, which proposed the creation of a board that will oversee and support Mississippi’s new State Medical Examiner. The proposed board should include doctors, police officers, prosecutors, and defense attorneys working together to ensure that the Office of the State Medical Examiner operates as efficiently and professionally as possible.
After that forum, the Department of Public Safety hired its first medical examiner for the state of Mississippi in 15 years. The medical examiner’s office has continued to grow and has now hired two more examiners and are in the process of hiring a fourth one.
On April 6, 2011, Governor Haley Barbour signed a bill establishing a non-partisan, diverse panel tasked with appointing a state medical examiner and creating an advisory panel to aid medical examiner office issues.
This is an about-face from this time last year when Mississippi did not have a medical examiner. Last November, MIP, the University of Mississippi, and the University Medical Center hosted a forum respectfully addressing medical examiner issues in our state.
December 2011 – Eye-witness ID training
Since 1989, nearly 311 innocently incarcerated individuals have been freed through DNA testing. Mistaken eyewitness identifications have been one of the root causes in almost 75% of those cases. In every misidentification case, an innocent person is sent to prison while the real perpetrator remains free to commit more crimes.
In response to this, MIP held a training on eyewitness identifications for the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police at the University of Mississippi in December 2011. The training incorporated current best practices, and was reflective of national efforts by entities interested in managing risk for public safety organizations.
Spring of 2013 – helped to defeat HB 788
HB 788, among other things, would have placed a time limit on those seeking post conviction DNA testing. In essence the bill would have made it nearly impossible for any case over a year old from seeking testing – in short, most of our clients. The bill was defeated.