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Crime lab ordered to explain wait

A Lincoln County judge has ordered a physician from the state crime lab to appear in court and answer one question — what’s taking so long?

Lincoln County Circuit Judge Mike Taylor on Monday signed a show cause order demanding Dr. J. Brent Davis from the Mississippi Forensics Laboratory take the stand Monday afternoon and “show cause” as to why the crime lab has not finished its autopsy report on Billy Ray Thomas, Jr., who was killed in a shooting at The Oasis nightclub in Brookhaven on Nov. 25 last year. Prosecutors have charged 24-year-old Justin Devon Anderson of Natchez with first-degree murder, but without the crime lab’s findings, the case — hearings for which began in September — has hit a wall.

“We’ve dealt with this in the past, but we’ve never really gone this far,” District Attorney Dee Bates said of the show cause order. “We’ve got a case, he’s asking for a speedy trial. We have to have (the autopsy report). We have to uphold his constitutional rights, and something’s got to give.”

Court documents show Davis performed an autopsy on Thomas Nov. 28 last year and issued a preliminary report that same day, but has yet to file a final report detailing his findings. The same motion for a show cause order claims investigators sent the crime lab a gunshot residue evidence collection kit on Nov. 29, taken from an alleged witness, requesting an analysis. So far, the court has not received that report, either.

Assistant district attorney Diane Jones also argued in her motion for a show cause order DNA samples from Anderson were sent to the crime lab on March 29, 2018, requesting the tissue be compared with DNA collected from a firearm found at The Oasis the night of the shooting. No analysis has been delivered.

Jones’ show cause motion sought to compel Davis and two other crime lab employees, but Taylor named only Davis in his order. The order requires Davis appear in court at 3:30 p.m. Monday, but Taylor next signed an order of continuance pushing the case back to Dec. 10.

The state crime lab’s inability to return autopsy reports in a timely manner is a well-documented problem that has agitated court officials statewide, even in Lincoln County.

County officials in August told supervisors Circuit Judge David Strong was considering calling crime lab officials to the carpet to find out why only five of eight autopsy reports from the 2017 Memorial Day weekend massacre in Lincoln County had been completed. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty of Willie Cory Godbolt in that case, the next hearing for which is scheduled for Nov. 13.

While lawyers and judges around Mississippi are sore at the crime lab, officials there claim they’re backlogged because the facility is underfunded and understaffed. The lab employs around 80 people, but full staff is 120. Lawmakers gave the medical examiner’s office $3.4 million for Fiscal Year 2019, $1 million more than the previous year. The office was funded at $2.4 million every year after 2014, when the allotment was $1.9 million.

Natchez attorney Zachary Jex, who is representing Anderson, said the show cause motion doesn’t really affect his case too much due to the continuance.

“We’re still reviewing discovery,” he said. “New people are coming forward, there’s new evidence and we’re still waiting on the crime lab results.”