- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - The Mississippi medical examiner is still working on an autopsy report for two nuns who were killed five months ago in the community where they had done charity work for years.

Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Warren Strain told The Associated Press that the report could be finished in the next two or three weeks.

“The Department of Public Safety is moving as expeditiously as possible without compromising the integrity of the case,” Strain said Friday. “The case file is complete with the exception of the complete and final autopsy report from the state medical examiner.”

Holmes County District Attorney Akillie Malone-Oliver said Thursday that she is waiting for complete information from the medical examiner and results of forensics tests from the state Crime Lab before presenting the case to a grand jury for possible indictment. Both are part of the Department of Public Safety. Strain said the forensics tests are complete.

The bodies of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill, both 68, were found Aug. 25 in Durant after they failed to show up at the health clinic where they worked as nurse practitioners in Lexington. Both communities are in Holmes County, one of the poorest counties in the nation.

Rodney Earl Sanders of nearby Kosciusko, Mississippi, was charged with capital murder Aug. 26 and remains jailed without bond. He was 46 when arrested and is now 47.

The nuns’ funerals were Sept. 2. Merrill was buried in Kentucky, where she belonged to the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. Held was buried in Wisconsin, where she was a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee.

The nuns’ relatives and colleagues have said they oppose the death penalty, including for Sanders.

Mississippi Bureau of Investigation agent LeCarus Oliver - the husband of the district attorney - testified during a hearing Sept. 16 in Durant Municipal Court that Sanders had been staying in a shed across the street from the sisters’ home for three days before the slayings. Oliver testified that he was not in the room when Sanders confessed, but Sanders’ questioning by other investigators was captured on an audio recording.

“He did acknowledge killing Paula Merrill and Margaret Held,” Oliver testified.

Sanders told investigators that he went through the back door of the sisters’ home, uninvited. Sanders said Merrill saw him first before a struggle took place with both women, Oliver testified.

One of Sanders’ defense attorneys, Richard Carter III of Kosciusko, asked Oliver if Sanders had revealed a motive for the alleged crime. Oliver said he had not.

Municipal Judge Jim Arnold ruled at the end of the hearing that there was enough evidence to send the case to a grand jury.

Carter did not immediately return a call seeking comment about the case Friday.


Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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