Former medical examiner in deposition: 'I feel like an idiot'

I-TEAM obtains audio recording after allegations of ME's memory issues

Dr. Margarita Arruza testifies
Dr. Margarita Arruza testifies

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After allegations that Jacksonville’s former medical examiner exhibited signs of severe memory loss before she resigned her post in January 2011, the Public Defender’s Office is reviewing eight to 10 cases involving autopsies conducted by Dr. Margarita Arruza.

The Public Defender’s Office said it is concerned that mistakes might have been made in those cases, which could force them to be retried or reviewed by a court.

The State Attorney's Office said each case that Arruza handled was reviewed by other staff in the Medical Examiner’s Office, and prosecutors do not believe that any problems will be found with any of her cases.

According to records from the Medical Examiner's Office, Arruza performed approximately 452 autopsies from Jan. 1, 2009, to Dec. 31, 2010.

Near the end of that time, Arruza was exhibiting memory loss problems, according to former public defender Pat McGuinness.

McGuinness represented Shantell Serrant, who was accused of murder in 2008 in the death of her 18-month-old son, Antoine Hardiman. Serrant said her son's injuries were caused by an accidental fall in his playpen, but the medical examiner ruled the boy's death a homicide.

Serrant eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was placed on probation for two years.

As he was preparing Serrant's case for trial in September 2010, McGuinness deposed Arruza.

LISTEN: Deposition with Dr. Arruza in 2010

The I-TEAM has obtained audio recordings of that deposition, in which Arruza appears to become confused.

The deposition was held about a month before Arruza stopped performing criminal autopsies, according to State Attorney Angela Corey.

Arruza could not follow the line of questioning during the deposition and at one point said, "I feel like an idiot today."

Arruza: Today, I saw a skull fracture.
Question: OK. Is that skull fracture noted in your autopsy?
Arruza: No.
Q: Where is the skull fractured located?
Arruza: Where is the skull fracture?

The attorney had to specify locations in the brain, and Arruza responded, “Well, it looks like it’s a skull.”

At that point they took a break and went off the record, which they did several times during the deposition.

McGuiness told the I-TEAM last week how difficult the deposition was.

“I was astounded,” McGuinness said. “I've known her to be a competent professional for quite some number of years. She wasn't at all like that. She didn't understand what was going on in the situation, the deposition, the evidence. It was kind of frightening.”

McGuinness said he alerted officials in the State Attorney's Office to Arruza's condition, but Corey said she was not told about it until a month later, when she took immediate action.

Corey said that after she learned Arruza could not answer even simple questions about her resume, Arruza did not perform any more criminal autopsies and no longer testified in cases.

Arruza officially resigned in January 2011.

Arruza's resignation letter, sent to then-Mayor John Peyton, did not mention a medical condition, and her exit paperwork said she would be eligible to be rehired.

The I-TEAM attempted to contact Arruza and her family for comment when the story first broke last week, but we have not heard back.

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