Ground broken for larger Duval Medical Examiner's Office
City officials broke ground Monday on a new medical examiner's office that will replace a facility whose structural bones date to 1968.
District 4 Chief Medical Examiner B. Robert Pietak joined city officials to ceremonially dig the first holes for the new $62.84 million office, which is expected to open in late 2025 at 4368 N. Davis St.
The site is across the street from the KIPP Voice Academy on Golfair Boulevard and just over a mile north of the current office.
"Looking at this design, I think we go beyond state of the art," Pietak said. "They put together the latest technology, the latest science available, to create a very efficient, very well-built, well-organized facility. At the end of the day, it's all about one thing — the medical examiner's office wants to provide the best possible medical, legal death investigation for the residents of Jacksonville and our surrounding jurisdictional counties."
The Duval County medical examiner’s office began as a one-story facility in 1968, with an addition and a second floor added later. A portable cooler to handle the bodies and a mobile office also have been added for the facility's seven pathologists, Pietak said.
The current facility can handle a maximum of 45 bodies but has been at capacity several times in recent months, city documents show. The 55-year-old facility on North Jefferson Street has dealt with an average of 2,000 autopsies a year.
The need has grown more urgent with the increase in opioid overdose deaths and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, said Charles Moreland, Jacksonville's deputy chief administrative officer.
"These individuals work hard every day to meet the challenges," Moreland said. "But without the appropriate equipment and space, wait times grew and crews were severely overworked. Unfortunately, these delay can hinder an investigation when someone is a victim of violent crime or passes away unexpectedly."
By the late 2010s, the medical examiner's office was out of space as officials began to push for a replacement. But the Jacksonville city budget contained no money for updating or expanding it. Then in 2017, former Duval Medical Examiner Valerie Rao pointed to mass casualties like 2016's Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando as one reason to build a new, larger facility in Duval.
“If we were to have (a mass killing) in Jacksonville, I don’t think we would be able to handle that physically,” Rao said at the time. “I mean, we could do the autopsies, but the facility’s not there to accommodate that type of a disaster.”
Pietak, previously interim medical examiner in Kansas City, began to push for a new facility after he was appointed in 2019. That included tours of other medical examiners' offices in Florida to find out what a "well-functioning office should look like," Pietak said.
"We established some basic criteria and together with my experience of over 25 years in forensic pathology, we came up with some things that we thought were definitely needed in the new building," he said.