Questioned autopsy factored in woman's release after husband's death
Posted July 10, 2014 8:54 p.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2014 3:01 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — A woman arrested last year after her husband died following a violent argument at their Cary home said Thursday she believes a change to the findings in his autopsy report kept her in jail for more than a year – a change her defense attorney called "suspicious."
"The medical examiner made their decision," Dottie Delaney Amtey said. "Because of that, my life has been affected."
Originally charged with second-degree murder after she admitted to strangling her husband, Amtey, 63, pleaded guilty on May 16 to voluntary manslaughter under what's called an Alford plea in the May 8, 2013 death of Sharad Ramchandraro Amtey, 77.
The charge in the case normally carries a three-year prison sentence, but Dottie Amtey is now free, partly because of what Superior Court Judge Carl Fox saw as a "conflict" with the autopsy report.
Two autopsy findings
The conflict that Fox saw has to do with Wake County Medical Examiner Dr. Shannon Covey's initial investigation on May 9, 2013, which found Sharad Amtey's probable cause of death to be a heart attack and coronary artery thrombosis – or a blood clot.
According to a supplemental case report by a Cary police investigator, Dr. Lauren Scott performed an autopsy the same day – under the supervision of Dr. Clay Nichols. Nichols told police then that Sharad Amtey died of natural causes.
The supplemental case report states:
"He advises that the cause of death was not consistent with an assault. Dr. Clay Nichols explained the situation this way, 'Did he die during an assault? Yes. Did the assault cause his death? No.'"
On June 17, 2013, however, Scott amended Covey's findings to say that "increased strain on the heart secondary to assault likely contributed" to the heart attack and that "this could still be classified as a homicide."
Nichols signed off on Scott's conclusion on July 19, 2013.
But Dottie Amtey's defense attorney, Johnny Gaskins, has questions about the change.
"It's very suspicious that all this happened the way it did," he said. "The initial conclusions were that he died of natural causes. Then, there's an amendment that says, perhaps, otherwise, and it all happens in the midst of an SBI investigation."
Nichols under investigation
In November, Nichols was fired as the state's deputy chief medical examiner after concerns about whether he followed proper policies and procedures during autopsies in at least two murder investigations.
The State Bureau of Investigation was investigating but eventually found no criminal wrongdoing, and prosecutors never filed any charges.
"It appeared that the report had been amended to, perhaps, avoid any further scrutiny of the conclusions that had initially been made," Gaskins said.
Kevin Howell, legal coordinator for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, however, said Thursday that there is nothing "suspicious" about the amended report.
"Despite the preliminary finding of the county medical examiner and any earlier statements made, OCME's final determination lists the manner of death as a homicide," Howell said. "This finding is supported by Dr. Scott’s autopsy and independent case review."
Dottie Amtey walks free
According to court records, "the conflict in the medical examiner's two reports," was one of two "extraordinary mitigation findings" that factored into Fox's sentencing decision.
The other extraordinary mitigating circumstance, was the "support of the victim's two daughters."
Instead of three years in prison, Fox sentenced Dottie Amtey to 36 months of probation and six months in prison. Because she had been jailed for a year, she was allowed to walk free.
Wake County Assistant District Attorney Howard Cummings said Thursday that he believes the outcome of the case is appropriate.
"I think that voluntary manslaughter was an appropriate resolution regardless based on all the circumstances of the case," he said. "My decision (regarding the plea) was not based on the medical examiner's report."
As for Dottie Amtey, she's now living with friends because she has lost her home and her job and is simply trying to rebuild her life.
"I am basically living a whole different life, now," she said. "I have lost everything."