Some people make a huge difference in the lives of others without ever knowing.
I was a rookie cop in 1960 when I was first introduced to the dreaded Medical Examiner’s autopsy room in Dade County. This is where the fainted-hearted drop like flies, while doctors and technicians dissect real human bodies, probing for clues that will determine what caused this person to die. It was an ominous moment, first walking into the room, with naked bodies in all directions lying on steel trays, all ages, races and genders, some with bloody trauma, others without, and the smell of blood filling the room.
While the staff doctors were stereotypically studious, in walked a quick-stepping young fellow wearing a bloodstained smock, black hair combed back and a smile on his face. His face lit up at the site of newbees, as if to say; “Welcome to Disneyland.”
He immediately put us at ease, narrating his procedures as he went along, developing in us an instant fascination with forensic pathology, as though he was a kid playing with his erector set. “Lookee here,” Doctor Davis explained after opening the stomach lining of a middle-aged woman, “the stomach is empty.”
“So?” asked one of the young cops.
“Well, the husband said they had just had a big steak dinner before going to bed. Then she suddenly collapsed. No food there. He lied.”
It wasn’t that Doctor Joseph H. Davis made an astounding discovery. It was his delivery, his sheer enthusiasm in sharing an item of forensic evidence. He enjoyed teaching and showing us all how it’s done from the inside out. (If you’ll excuse the expression)
Doctor Davis passed away in March of this year at the age of eighty-eight. He had served as Miami-Dade County’s Chief Medical Examiner for forty years, between 1957 and 1996, conducting over 10,000 autopsies and mentoring hundreds, maybe thousands, of other pathologists, forensic technicians, cops, lawyers, politicians and media personnel around the world. Among some of the most famous cases, he was consulted for his opinion in the assassination of President Kennedy. He had testified in thousands of criminal and civil cases. Without question, he was among my most admired human beings ever.
What set him aside was his humble sense of humanity and an utter joy in a labor of love, not to mention a brain bursting with knowledge and innovation that eventually made him one of, or perhaps, the most esteemed medical examiner in the world. Prosecutors loved him; Defense lawyers feared him…yet admired him enormously.
Usually, when we are in the presence of an intellectual giant and a man of so many achievements, a certain awe comes over us causing a fumble for words, especially to cops, many of whom were lucky to hold an Associates Degree. But with Doctor Davis, we were all one and the same. We were all part of a team with our special skills working toward two objectives: Truth and Justice.
He was just as respectful and friendly to a rookie cop as he was to a state governor. I seriously doubt there is one human being on the planet – though he was known by thousands – who ever had a negative word to say about Doctor Joseph H. Davis.
During one of my homicide investigations, I was visiting in the good doctor’s office when he smiled, “Hey, Marshall, let’s go grab a sandwich.”
Wow, lunch with Doctor Davis. We stopped at one of those Miami Cuban cafes and chatted for an hour, drinking beer – on duty. He came with me to the Miami violin shop where I picked up my newly repaired fiddle. With an amazed expression, he insisted I play for him. Moments to remember.
Even in our retirements, we stayed in touch through e-mails. He often had poignant observations about my articles, sometimes disagreeing and making me see another side of the proverbial coin. Despite his waning years, the wise old man never lost his ability to cut through the crap and get to the heart of any matter.
Two years ago, I knew Doctor Davis would not be with us forever, and I thought about his eventual services. How nice it would be when scores of people would come to the podium and recite great memories and tributes to Doctor Davis – tributes he would not hear.
So, I teamed up with another old retired police buddy by the name of Jack DeRemer and we organized a special tribute luncheon during life, not far from his retirement home in Tallahassee, Florida. Some eighty-plus of his lifelong admirers, students, fellow pathologists, lawyers, cops, forensic experts, etc., came from all over to honor Doctor Davis in person. Doctor Jay Barnhart – one of his retired assistants – joined me on piano as we played music for the most colossal figure I ever knew in the field of criminal justice.
Some may find it morbid, giving a man a service before he had passed away, but I’m glad we all had the chance to let him know how much he has been loved.
He leaves behind six daughters and a son – and many grandchildren, all of whom have much to be proud of. His wife had passed away. My deepest condolences to all his family.
For more about the remarkable life of Doctor Davis, please read the Miami Herald article linked below.
Below that, is another older link with a video of Doctor Davis expressing his frustration with the tsunami of crime associated with the Mariel Boat lift in 1980…mincing no words.
Photo below taken in 2011, myself chatting with D.r Davis at an M.E. Conference.