CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Attorney General Denise George announced Tuesday the opening of the V.I. Department of Justice’s (VIDOJ) new Medical Examiner’s (ME) Office at 10A & 11A Bjerge Gade, St. Thomas. The facility includes an autopsy suite, morgue, and offices for the medical examiners and staff.
After the completion of the physical facility, the staff relocated to their new offices. The office is outfitted with two autopsy tables; an X-ray machine, a 20-body cooler (40 bodies when stacked); visitors/family room; observation/identification room; offices for both medical examiners; and handicap accessible bathrooms with locker, shower, washer/dryer, and backup generators. The parking lot has enough space to add at least two 40-foot trailers, allowing the staff to quickly respond to a mass-casualty event.
AG George recently joined the ME Office’s Director of Operations, Anthony Hunt during a final walkthrough of the long-awaited office. Plans for the new location at the former Creque’s Funeral Home were unveiled back in January 2017 as work was underway to transform it into a medical examiner office “This is a great accomplishment. The Medical Examiner’s Office is such an integral part of the DOJ because it plays an important role in the investigation and prosecution of homicides. It just takes it to a new level so that we can preserve and enhance the integrity of not
only the ME investigations but homicide prosecutions as well”, said AG George.
The former ME office was housed at the Schneider Regional Medical Center. Director Hunt said the new building layout is more of a private and secure setting that is conducive to the work of forensic pathologists. In criminal cases, it is especially critical to limit the amount of access to any evidence that may be used in a trial. He added, “The medical examiners are the forensic pathologists for the DOJ, they serve as key witnesses in all homicide presentations in the V.I.”
The MEs are medical doctors employed with the V.I. Department of Justice. They are the first responders to calls of death to pick up and secure the bodies of the deceased. MEs, have the legal power to make inquiries into all unnatural or suspicious deaths, conduct subpoena, and examine witnesses under oath in the same manner as a court.
Additionally, the MEs must perform autopsies and testify when reports are used to substantiate the cause and manner of death in homicide cases.
The ME investigates the deaths of every person who dies within the V.I, or whose body is found within the Virgin Islands including:
The ME has the authority to perform autopsies to determine the true medical cause and manner of death and make a positive identification of unidentifiable remains through testing DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), Dental Records & Fingerprints. DOJ medical examiner, Dr. Francisco Landron has advocated for this facility. As an ME with the DOJ for over 25 years, he says this is great news. “It’s historical for the V.I. and beneficial for the DOJ because we have our own morgue with new modern equipment. The enhancements and size also address the problem of available space experienced at the hospital”, said Landron.
Although the lab is outfitted with new equipment, it does not include a toxicology lab. Therefore, he explains
that samples are sent away to a reputable forensic lab. He said he is hopeful that a lab will be considered, although costly. “It would be great to have one in the near future, but that entails a whole set of different forensic science trained personnel, a toxicology lab, and equipment that can be quite costly”.
Director Hunt notes the ME’s office works in tandem with the V.I. Police Department. He said officers will utilize the facility for their homicide and accident investigations. The facility will also serve as training for local law enforcement officers in areas such as anatomy, mechanism of injuries, and methods of collecting evidence. The facility will also enable forensic science students, nursing students, and related field interns to gain hands-on experience.
AG George said since the launch, completing this project has been a priority. She thanked Director Hunt and the dedicated and professional team for all their cooperation in the construction and relocation. She said work is underway to acquire a separate ME office on St. Croix. “It will be beneficial to have offices separately on both islands. This significant improvement in the level of service is something we can all be proud of.”
Funding for the Autopsy Suite was provided through grant funds from the US Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Justice Assistance Grant Program in the form of a sub-grant from the Law Enforcement Planning Commission (LEPC) and Direct funding from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). The Generator was purchased with funds from the Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) through the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency (VITEMA). Grant funds had also been used to purchase supplies, such as body bags, protective gowns, face and eye-protective shields, and surgical equipment to perform autopsies.