Lawyer seeks suicide verdict in wife’s death

Applies for judicial review to overturn jury’s decision

A lawyer whose estranged wife was found hanged is bringing legal proceedings against the Cayman Islands coroner for implying that he killed her, and he is seeking a new order declaring the death a suicide. 

A jury returned an open verdict following a three-day inquest in November 2013 into the death of 43-year-old Lija Godenzi, which means they could not say definitively how she died. 

Lawyers acting for her husband Andreas Haug, a partner at Maples, claim there was no evidence presented at the hearing to suggest the death was anything other than a suicide. They claim coroner Eileen Nervik led the jury to a false verdict, in part by suggesting her husband may have murdered her. 

They have filed a writ with the Grand Court asking for a judge to replace the jury’s verdict with one of suicide. 

The writ claims the verdict and the coroner’s directions “sully the applicant’s reputation.” It also asks for the court to award “appropriate relief” to the applicant as well as costs. 

The document states, “The coroner directed the jury that a concern at the forefront of their minds ought to be the possibility that the applicant killed Ms Godenzi.” 

It then quotes from her comments to the jury, “The deceased had no life insurance. But who was to gain from her death? No divorce, no settlement issues.” 

The jury heard that the couple had been separated for five months and were going through divorce proceedings. 

The document, an application for leave to apply for judicial review, says no evidence was presented at the inquest to suggest the applicant was involved in the death.  

It takes issue with the coroner’s “error strewn” directions to the jury, claiming she failed to summarize the evidence in a balanced way, marshalling the facts to achieve an open verdict. 

It claims she overstated the burden of proof required for a suicide verdict and failed to remind the jury in her summing up of the evidence of Ms Godenzi’s suicidal intent, including a text message saying, “I want to die,” and comments from her psychiatrist about her depression. 

Ms Godenzi’s body was found hanging from the bedroom door of her George Town apartment on April 7. She had last been seen alive four days earlier, and a pathologist’s report suggested she died several days before the body was discovered. The inquest jury heard that Mr. Haug had left the island April 5 to go on holiday with his children. 

An autopsy report, read at the inquest, indicated the manner of death was “consistent with suicide” and said there were no signs of injury or a struggle. The inquest also heard that the victim was on anti-depressants and that police had investigated the death and decided no crime had been committed. 

In her summing up, however, Ms Nervik seemed to raise the possibility that the woman had been murdered, pointing out that the pathologist “could not rule out that she had been unconscious and placed on the door by someone else.” 

Summing up the testimony of Mr. Haug, Ms Nervik said he 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. 

She pointed to “discrepancies” in the GPS record of the car’s movements and questioned why Mr. Haug had not checked on his wife once he noticed the car had not moved from the driveway for several days. 

The writ states: “He (Haug) was not asked why the device had been installed. He was not asked whether he had checked the records from the GPS device before he ‘left the island’ or whether he considered checking on Ms Godenzi before he left to go on holiday. The coroner simply assumed that the applicant had looked at the GPS records, directed the jury to make the same assumption, directed them that this was of probative value and then suggested that from this assumption they draw the adverse inference that the applicant may have killed his wife.” 

It further suggests that Ms Nervik erred by expressing concerns about a laptop that was missing from the apartment and pointing out that Mr. Haug was one of two people, aside from Ms Godenzi, who had keys to her apartment. 

These facts, say Mr. Haug’s lawyers, were of limited probative value and should not have been emphasized to the jury. 

They also claim Ms Nervik was wrong to instruct the jury to disregard evidence from a handwriting expert that a note found at the scene, which read “just do it,” was “probably” written in Ms Godenzi’s handwriting. 

The coroner is also criticized for directing the jury that “hanging is not the usual method used by women to end their lives” because no evidence was heard at the inquest to support this conclusion. 

“Plainly some women do commit suicide by hanging and the jury ought to have been directed to consider the particular circumstances surrounding the death of Ms Godenzi,” the document states. 

The writ also claims the coroner erred by directing the jury that before they could return a verdict of suicide, “other possible explanations must be totally ruled out.” 

It adds: “The coroner further erred in failing to recognize that there was no evidence given at the inquest capable of supporting reasonable doubt that Ms Godenzi’s death was a suicide.” 

The writ, filed on Jan. 7, seeks an order of certiorari from a judge, quashing the open verdict, an order replacing the open verdict with a verdict of suicide, “further and other relief as the court may deem appropriate,” and costs of the proceedings. 

It adds: “This verdict, and the erroneous directions which led to it, sully the applicant’s reputation and deprive the applicant, the children and Ms Godenzi’s immediate family of a true verdict. A verdict so polluted by misdirection should not be allowed to stand.”