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Family of teacher who died from 20 stab wounds sues Philadelphia medical examiner to have suicide ruling changed

Her death was ruled a homicide, then a suicide. Now her parents are fighting to get the ruling changed back.

Ellen Greenberg, 27, was found dead in her apartment on Jan. 26, 2011, with 20 stab wounds.
Ellen Greenberg, 27, was found dead in her apartment on Jan. 26, 2011, with 20 stab wounds.Read moreCourtesy of the Greenberg family

The parents of a teacher whose stabbing death was ruled a homicide and then reversed to suicide — with no explanation — filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday against the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office and the pathologist who conducted the autopsy to have the ruling changed to undetermined or back to homicide.

The story of Ellen Greenberg’s death, which has perplexed forensic experts, was first detailed in a March 15 report in The Inquirer.

Greenberg, 27, a teacher at Juniata Park Academy, was discovered by her fiance in the kitchen of their Manayunk apartment with 20 stab wounds to her body and a 10-inch knife lodged in her chest on Jan. 26, 2011. The suit contends the original homicide ruling was correct and raises new questions about the case, including whether two knives may have been used and whether the ME’s Office was pressured into changing their ruling by police.

Police said they treated Greenberg’s death as a suicide that night because the apartment door — which her fiance said he broke down — had been locked from the inside. Greenberg had no defensive wounds to indicate she tried to fight off an attacker, and there were no signs of an intruder in the apartment, police said.

But the next morning at autopsy, then-Assistant Philadelphia Medical Examiner Marlon Osbourne ruled her death a homicide after discovering 20 stab wounds to her body — 10 to the back of her neck, eight to her chest, one to her stomach, and a 2.5-inch-long gash across her scalp.

In a rare move, police publicly disputed the ME’s findings and by April 2011, Osbourne officially changed his ruling from homicide to suicide with no explanation to her parents, Joshua and Sandra Greenberg of Harrisburg.

In the eight years since, the Greenbergs have undertaken their own investigation, amassing numerous forensic experts who have questioned the suicide ruling and raised arguments about the infallibility of authorities’ findings.

The state Attorney General’s Office also investigated the death. Earlier this year, the office disclosed for the first time that an analysis of Greenberg’s computer had found searches for the terms suicide methods, quick suicide, and painless suicide in the weeks before her death. The agency also cited a text message from Greenberg to her mother, on Jan. 8, 2011, in which she wrote, “I’m starting the med I know u don’t understand but I can’t keep living with feeling this way.”

On Tuesday, the Greenbergs’ attorney, Joseph Podraza Jr. of Philadelphia, filed the suit in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas against the ME’s Office and Osbourne — who now works as an associate medical examiner in Broward County, Fla. — asking both to change the manner of their daughter’s death from suicide to undetermined or homicide, citing new information.

“Under Pennsylvania law the determination and manner of death is always open to reconsideration based on new evidence and in this case you can see there’s considerable new evidence,” Podraza said.

» READ MORE: A locked-room mystery: Was it suicide or homicide?

When reached for comment about the lawsuit, a medical examiner spokesperson said the office does not comment on ongoing litigation. Osbourne did not return requests for comment.

New among the evidence cited in the Greenberg family’s lawsuit is a 3D anatomical re-creation conducted by BioMx Consulting of Norfolk, Va., based on the Philadelphia ME’s findings. It illustrates the size, depth, and angle of each of the wounds on Greenberg’s body, Podraza said.

“It’s impossible that she could have inflicted all 20 wounds and I think it’s tellingly demonstrated in this re-creation,” he said.

The suit also raises new questions from one forensic expert about whether Greenberg might have been stabbed with two knives — one serrated and one smooth — given how Osbourne describes her wounds in his autopsy.

“If a second knife was used in Ellen’s death but not recovered at the scene, someone other than Ellen necessarily disposed of it, which alone rules out suicide as a cause of death,” the suit reads.

Among the ongoing questions raised in the suit is whether one or more of the stab wounds to Greenberg’s neck damaged her spinal cord or brain so severely it would have rendered her incapable of stabbing herself further, including the final blow to her chest.

The lawsuit contends Osbourne admitted to changing Greenberg’s manner of death from homicide to suicide “'at the insistence of the police because they said there was a lack of defensive wounds.'”

Tom Brennan, a retired 25-year state police veteran who’s working the case for Greenberg’s parents, said Osbourne told him as much during a conference call several years ago.

“I was surprised. I asked him, ‘Since when do the police have anything to do with making a medical decision regarding the cause and manner of death?’ ” Brennan said Tuesday.

The suit cites additional information from the March Inquirer article as well as reports the family obtained from forensic experts such as Cyril M. Wecht and Henry C. Lee.

In the lawsuit, Podraza raises questions about the police’s reasoning for a suicide determination, including the lack of defensive wounds, which he said could be because Greenberg was the victim of a “blitz attack” and didn’t have time to defend herself.

As for the searches on her laptop, the lawsuit suggests that someone else could have used the device for those inquiries.

“When you look at what the Police Department was considering to be the evidence of suicide, none of them are unassailable and they all require a much more definitive explanation,” he said.

Podraza said Osbourne did not respond to letters detailing the new information and asking him to change his findings. Chief Philadelphia Medical Examiner Sam Gulino did respond to a similar letter, Podraza said, but indicated he didn’t know when he might complete his review.

With no definitive answers from either party, Podraza filed the suit asking the court to declare the manner of death be changed from suicide to undetermined, at a minimum.

“That will allow for further investigation to proceed and ultimately, perhaps, a more definitive manner of death can be selected,” Podraza said.