The family of a former U.S. Marine who was killed by a Wilmington police officer last year has demanded that the state medical examiner’s office change the death ruling from suicide to homicide.
Grace Denk, 21, was shot and killed while sitting in a Toyota Highlander in January 2014. Denk, who had been drinking and arguing with her boyfriend, had threatened to kill herself before speeding away with a .380-caliber pistol.
Police found Denk sitting in her car on a dark Wilmington road around 2 a.m. The gun lay next to her right hand.
It’s unclear whether Denk simply reached for her gun or pointed it at Wilmington police officer Ian Lovell – who fired at Denk, killing her.
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The local medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, reports show.
Dr. Anuradha Arcot, who performed the autopsy at Coastal Pathology Associates, reached a different conclusion. Denk killed herself, Arcot said.
“She sustained a total of five bullet wounds,” Arcot wrote. “The first is compatible with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.”
Denk, a student at Cape Fear Community College, also sustained a superficial wound to the chest and three wounds to the left arm, Arcot wrote.
In June, Dr. Deborah Radisch, the state’s chief medical examiner, reviewed the ruling and closed the case as a suicide.
Last year, an Observer investigation showed the medical examiner’s office fails to follow crucial investigative steps, raising questions about the accuracy of thousands of death rulings. The newspaper also documented how the medical examiner’s office has kept some families waiting more than a year before issuing a cause of death ruling.
“Where does the medical examiner’s office come up with (the suicide ruling),” asked Katy Parker, an attorney for Denk’s family. “The Police Department, I think they were as shocked as I was” (about the autopsy report).
Parker said there’s no evidence that Denk fired a shot before police fired four rounds at her. Denk shot once – through the roof of her car, Parker said.
A week after Denk’s shooting, Wilmington police and the New Hanover County District Attorney said the autopsy report didn’t match the case’s facts.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigations and the Wilmington Police Department ruled the shooting a justified homicide.
In the eight months since the ruling, the family, the district attorney and police have asked the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner multiple times to change its ruling. The district attorney even provided the medical examiner’s office with police videos, Parker said.
“They haven’t responded to me at all,” she said.
The medical examiner’s office regularly talks with law enforcement, said Alexandra Lefebvre, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. “However, it would be inappropriate to speculate or comment further at this time,” she said.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David and Wilmington police Chief Ralph Evangelous said in a news release that they told Radisch they were concerned about inaccuracies in the state’s conclusion.
“Forensic evidence needs to be rigorously tested, and this incident underscores the need for scrutiny,” David said in a statement. “Nothing is more important in the pursuit of the truth than the integrity of physical evidence. … We will continue to work with the OCME to ensure that any inaccuracies are addressed in this case.”
Parker said an inaccurate autopsy report could hurt a potential wrongful death case against the Police Department. “But it’s at lease a terrible miscarriage of justice to Grace, in her mother’s eyes.”
This month, the family weighed in again with a letter to Radisch.
“It is my understanding that you and your office have failed to correct this erroneous and damaging report,” Parker wrote.
She said the medical examiner’s office has until April 22 to change Denk’s autopsy report. If that’s not done, the family will sue the office and Radisch for gross negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, Parker’s letter said.
“How can this awful stuff keep happening,” said Bonnie Anderson, Denk’s mother. “Sometime, someone has to be held accountable for something. So far, no one has been held accountable for anything.”