“Around here, a death is a death. We treat them all the same,” Davis told a reporter in 1997, as he worked part time in retirement.
Moments earlier, the body of murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace, shot to death on the steps of his Miami Beach mansion, had been sent from the morgue to a funeral home.
Other famous cases included the deaths of 103 passengers and crew in the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 401 in the Everglades in 1972.
His busiest time was the post-Mariel/ “Cocaine Cowboys’’ era of the 1980s, when homicides regularly topped 600 annually. Davis had to rent refrigerated meat trucks as backup morgues, and railed publicly against the carnage.
He placed the blame squarely on Colombian drug criminals and a certain element of Mariel refugees.
“These guys are spaced out,’’ Davis said in a 1981 television interview. “They are psychologically totally not even human. They’re animals — not even animals. That’s an insult to the animal kingdom.’’
In the first half of the year, his office had already received bodies 2,035 bodies, 374 of them homicides.
“I don’t see any relief in sight unless the federal govenrment comes in and moves out all the undesirable illegal aliens and cracks down on all the Colombian drug homicides,’’ Davis said. “And that would only be temporary.’’
He refused to back down after being called a bigot.
“I will not apologize for feeling very deeply that members of both of those groups have engaged in an orgy of killing the likes of the old roving bands of pirates and corsairs,’’ Davis told a Miami Herald columnist. “...Where is the sense of outrage...? We who deal with what’s happening are seeing the destruction of a community by people who shouldn’t be here in the first place.’’
His sort of candor and courage earned Davis deep respect from law enforcement.
Former Miami homicide detective Jerry Green said Davis had “a huge amount of patience and everyday smarts and common sense. And he was incorruptible.”
Retired Miami homicide investigator Mike Gonzalez called Davis “the greatest medical examiner who ever lived,’’ always curious, friendly, eager to learn and teach.
In one case, he went looking for the body of a woman reportedly dumped near Key Biscayne — and found it after Davis noticed some land crabs.
“Joe was following them around,’’ Gonzalez said. “Here comes a land crab with a finger bone with two rings.’’
Retired Miami-Dade homicide detective Greg Smith recalled Davis’s razor-sharp institutional memory.
“He was a meticulous keeper of record, and he developed these policies and procedures that have been used in medical examiners’ offices all over the country," Smith said.
Tony Monheim, another retired homicide investigator from Miami-Dade, said that Davis “knew something about everything...With him, you knew you were going to get an education on the medical forensics of the case, but also the Civil War, JFK. He was a true Renaissance man, so far ahead of his time.’’
Prosecutors remembered Davis as a compelling and persuasive figure who could easily guide a jury through the complicated science of forensic pathology.