‘Open verdict’ in hanging death

Rejecting suicide as an option, Coroner’s Court on Thursday delivered an “open verdict” in the 2012 hanging death of Lija Godenzi, leaving multiple questions, many posed by Coroner Eileen Nervik.

The jury had three options for a verdict: natural causes, misadventure or suicide. If the evidence is insufficient to reach a verdict, the result is called an open verdict.

The three-day court session before Coroner Nervik included statements and direct testimony from a number of witnesses, including investigators, friends and Ms Godenzi’s estranged husband, Maples and Calder partner Andreas Haug.

Police initially said no suspicious circumstances surrounded the apparent suicide of Ms Godenzi, 43, whose body was found on April 7. It was determined that she had died on the evening of April 3 or the morning of April 4.

The pathologist’s report said moderate to advanced decomposition made it difficult to determine exactly what had happened and when, but observed no signs “of combat or struggling injuries of resisting an assault. No defense injuries are seen. No scratch, fingernail marks, abrasion of the neck or bruises are seen around the hanging mark,” Dr. Shravana Jyoti wrote.

The report found “no signs of break in, ransacking of the house, and no blood spatters are seen anywhere.”

During the court hearing Thursday, Ms Nervik said that Ms Godenzi might have been “drowsy,” under the influence of a series of prescription medications for depression, and that the knots in the rope “could have been tied by someone else.”

She said Dr. Jyoti “could not rule out that she had been unconscious and placed on the door by someone else.”

She also pointed to inconsistencies and errors in the original police investigation, saying investigators never dusted Ms Godenzi’s two-bedroom Sunrise Apartments home for fingerprints, never traced the origins of the blue rope used in the hanging, never located the jewelry one witness described her as wearing just prior to her death, and never forensically examined either the laptop computer in Ms Godenzi’s living room or her two iPhones. The laptop was subsequently misplaced and has never been found.

Turning to testimony of Mr. Haug, Ms Nervik said he had acknowledged possessing letters between Ms Godenzi and her lawyers, stating she wanted a divorce and that, unbeknown to her, he had hard-wired a tracking device into the steering column of her car, ensuring he had full records of her movements.

“Asked if he could remotely access her computer, shadowing or monitoring her, he refused to answer, saying, ‘I may incriminate myself.’ He said it was his computer,” Ms Nervik said.

The coroner summarized the evidence regarding Ms Godenzi personally, saying “she was a good and loving mother. She had friends and liked to keep company with local people. She was going through a very contentious and very acrimonious divorce and felt overwhelmed at times.”

However, doctors had said she was recovering, Ms Nervik continued. She had booked a holiday for April 5 to 12 with friends and family in Hawaii and Australia, where she was from, “and was looking ahead, beyond the divorce, and had spoken about renewing her [ophthalmology] practice in Australia.”

Ms Nervik posed a series of queries before giving the case to the seven-member jury, admonishing them to ponder the answers.

“I cannot leave without voicing some grave concerns,” she said. “Where is the missing laptop? Why were there discrepancies in the tracking device?” she said, referring to unexplained, missing minutes and several movements of Ms Godenzi’s car. “Why was there no evidence of fingerprints in the apartment? Two other people had keys to her apartment, Mr. Haug and [her boyfriend].”

Mr. Haug’s counsel, Colin McKie, also a Maples and Calder partner, sharply objected to Ms Nervik’s summary, fearing it prejudiced his client.

“In light of the directions you gave to the jury,” he said, “I ask you to dismiss the jury so I may address you in private.”

Responding instantly, she firmly denied the request: “No. This is not a trial. We are exploring evidence.”