Did staff notice medical examiner's memory issues years earlier?

2013 deposition points to issues for Arruza as early as 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Questions of memory loss for Jacksonville’s former medical examiner may have arisen as early as late 2008, according to a 2013 deposition obtained by the I-TEAM.

Allegations that Dr. Margarita Arruza exhibited signs of severe memory loss before she resigned her post in 2011 came to light last month after Folio Weekly published an article saying that State Attorney Angela Corey knew about Arruza's condition and hid it from defendants' lawyers.

Corey said that after she learned in October 2010 that 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.

But a newly published report in Folio Weekly shows Arruza's memory problems may have begun years before her resignation.

The report cites a deposition from 2013, which was also obtained by the I-TEAM, that shows the problems might have been noticed by Arruza's staff much earlier than 2010.

READ: 2013 deposition of Dr. Valerie Rao

In the deposition, taken two years after Arruza resigned, the current Duval County medical examiner, Dr. Valerie Rao, was being questioned about an autopsy Arruza performed in a 2009 homicide case.

Question: How long was Dr. Arruza sick before she left?
Rao: I would say about -- she started to decline in maybe early 2009 or maybe even late 2008.
Question: And why would you say that?
Rao: Because there were some observations that the employees made along the way.
Question: Did you notice anything else?
Rao: Yes.
Question: What did you notice?
Rao: Forgetfulness.

Rao was not in town Wednesday, but told News4Jax by phone that she believes Arruza's condition is being blown out of proportion.

“She would forget, but when you think about it -- everyone forgets,” Rao said. “Have you not forgotten anything in your life?”

Rao said technicians from the office noticed problems early on, but because Arruza was the chief at that time, her forgetfulness was not questioned. Rao said she was surprised when she heard about the problems that cropped up later with Arruza.

“That is not a slur on Maggie’s work, because her work for the most part was very good,” Rao said. “So I find this whole thing like a witch hunt.”

Corey’s office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:

Ms. Corey was not the State Attorney in 2008. If the matter was brought to the previous administration's attention, it was not relayed to Ms. Corey. The matter was not brought to Ms. Corey's attention until October 2010. When Ms. Corey became aware of Dr. Arruza's 'forgetfulness,' Ms. Corey took immediate action and Dr. Arruza retired. If Dr. Rao or other Medical Examiner employees made any observations of 'forgetfulness' in regards to Dr. Arruza as described in this deposition, they were not were brought to Ms. Corey's attention.

Former state attorney Harry Shorestein, who preceded Corey, told Folio Weekly that he “was not aware of anyone reporting early dementia, early Alzheimer's, in regards to Dr. Arruza. As long as I was State Attorney I thought that she was an extremely competent and respected medical examiner."

News4Jax also requested comment from the Public Defender's Office, which handled the case that involved Rao's 2013 deposition.

Public Defender Matt Shirk’s office said after the allegations surfaced that it is reviewing eight to 10 cases in which Arruza was involved.

Corey'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.

News4Jax has not been able to reach Arruza for comment.

Rao, who is friends with Arruza, said she has not spoken with her recently either.

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