The officers gave Dottie Amtey her reading glasses before they strapped her into the front seat of a Cary Police Department car in May last year.
The 61-year-old asked anxious questions as a detective drove her through the predawn to the Wake County Detention Center. Could she see her husband’s body? How high would her bond be? How would she arrange for the money?
She didn’t hate her husband, Amtey said. She hadn’t meant to kill him, she told the officers.
“I was scared, and I just went hysterical. I admitted it,” she recalled.
But two months ago, a year after she was charged with murder, Dottie Amtey walked free from detention. She’d pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and her sentence was reduced to nothing but probation.
The linchpin in her case: A judge’s suspicion that medical examiners had handled the case “extremely, extremely” unusually.
The first sign of the murder charge’s weakness came as medical examiners conducted an autopsy on Sharad Ramchanadraro Amtey’s body.
Dottie Amtey had been “arrested for the strangulation death of her husband” and faced life in prison or death, the town of Cary had announced.
The fight began on May 8, 2013, between 10 and 11 p.m., when the 77-year-old man entered his bedroom and turned off the television that Dottie Amtie, their daughter and their granddaughter were watching, according to a medical examiner’s report.
“It was the kind of argument – it was him wanting to exert control over the environment,” said District Attorney Howard Cummings.
In Cummings’ opinion, Sharad Amtey’s action was a step in a pattern of domestic emotional abuse. Dottie Amtey agrees.
What caused death?
Court records don’t say exactly what happened next. The daughter and granddaughter apparently left the room, and the long-married couple’s fight soon became physical.
Dottie Amtey began to choke her feeble husband as he lay in bed, putting her hands around the neck of a man enmeshed in medical tubes and equipment, according to a medical examiner’s report.
Sharad Amtey, a quadruple-bypass patient, struggled and went still, though he kept a faint pulse, according to an account in police records.
His wife first confessed to the apparent killing minutes later, according to a 911 call from the rental house on Carbon Hill Court.
“She said that she just choked her husband to death,” an unidentified woman slowly told an emergency dispatcher, sobs audible in the background.
“He was very sick and old, and she said that she just killed him.”
The doctors at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner weren’t so sure.
They found Sharad Amtey’s hyoid bone in the neck wasn’t fractured, as it sometimes but not always is in fatal strangulations.
His corpse showed little of the hemorrhaging and skin spotting that appear in such cases, though both appeared, the examiners told police.
“Did he die during an assault? Yes. Did the assault cause his death? No,” said Clay Nichols, then the state’s deputy chief medical examiner, in a discussion described in Cary police records.
The probable cause of death, according to the initial medical examiner’s report, was acute coronary artery thrombosis – a clot blocking blood flow in the heart – leading to a heart attack.
It listed contributing conditions of diabetes and chronic kidney disease, but not strangulation.
A handwritten narrative, signed by a county examiner, Shannon Covey, noted that police were treating the case as a homicide.
“However,” it continued, the preliminary autopsy findings made it a “natural death.”
Nichols, the deputy chief, told the detectives that Dottie Amtey would be guilty of an assault, not murder, records state.
A third doctor – Lauren Scott – seemed open to another possibility, saying that strangulation, heart attack and health issues had formed a “perfect storm,” according to police records.
Dottie Amtey, for her part, says she didn’t know anything about the autopsy for months. She didn’t think she was a killer, but her public defender seemed during their meetings to snuff her hope of a lesser conviction, she said.
“I kept saying, ‘Where’s the medical report? Where’s the medical report?’ ” she recalled.
‘Something wasn’t right’
The report reached her hands late in September, about two months after it was finalized.
“I read it, and I immediately knew that something wasn’t right,” she said.
By then, the state had added several crucial lines to the official assessment of Sharad Amtey’s death.
The addendum, dated June 17 and signed by Scott, said that Amtey’s strangulation of her husband likely strained his heart, worsening the shortage of fresh blood to the muscle.
In the amended document, the phrase “complications of assault” became the single major cause of death, while a coronary blood clot now was just a contributing cause.
The report primarily cites timing – the assault and the death soon after – as evidence of the link.
In other words, the examiner concluded, “this could still be classified as a homicide.”
It’s standard for medical examiners to review and potentially amend their findings, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees medical examiners.
Yet the differences between the initial and final autopsy findings saved Dottie Amtey from a prison sentence that could have reached nearly five years, Judge Carl Fox said.
A judge’s questions
Fox has been a senior resident Superior Court judge for eight years and was a district attorney for 21 years prior.
“If this had been a straight-up strangulation case, she would have gone to prison. I wouldn’t have given her probation. But when the medical examiner’s report says death is not the result of a homicide …,” Fox said, trailing off.
DHHS explains the changes this way: Though Scott, a state doctor, conducted the autopsy and was “primarily responsible for the case,” it was a county medical examiner who wrote and signed the first version of the report, which blamed natural causes.
County examiners always write the first narrative, Howell said. DHHS named the former county medical examiner as Shannon Covey. Covey, who now works in pathology in New York, declined to comment.
Over the next five weeks, per protocol, Scott finished an independent investigation and review, said Kevin Howell, spokesman for DHHS. Her amendments to the report were the first formal expression of her medical opinion on the case, Howell said.
Therefore, Howell argued, this was not a case where a medical examiner contradicted herself; instead, it was a case where further review outmoded earlier findings.
Fox didn’t buy that reasoning.
“I found that, extremely, extremely unusual,” he said of the medical reports.
He theorized that the State Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry last year into the chief medical examiner’s office may have influenced the office at the time.
Nichols, the deputy chief medical examiner who reportedly said Sharad Amtey’s death was a case of assault, lost his job in November amid an SBI probe into evidence handling. He was not found to have committed any crime, and he said this week that he supported the finding of assault as a cause of death in Amtey’s case.
Still, Fox thinks that the SBI probe prompted investigators to lay low and keep their findings in line with prosecutors’ cases.
“The only conclusion I could draw from it was that because of that (SBI) investigation, that someone was scared about what might happen to them based on that ruling,” he said.
“I was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant because it didn’t make sense otherwise.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the SBI investigation was underway from May to July 2013. A Department of Justice spokeswoman didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Whether the judge’s suspicions carry truth, Dottie Amtey walked free just hours after she entered her voluntary manslaughter plea on May 16. About 20 of her friends were in attendance, but the deal made no news.
Fox formally cited the “conflict in the medical examiner’s two reports” in a document waiving her imprisonment.
Dottie Amtey lived at the jail south of downtown Raleigh for just over a year. She hasn’t fully settled things in her mind, but she describes her assault on her husband as unprecedented and out of her character.
She considers her judge to be a hero, and she believes that the medical examiners made a “serious error.”
Cummings, the district attorney, is unsure how he would have sentenced Dottie Amtey.
“Here’s a nice lady that has a lot of support in the community. What should you do with her?”
But he also defended the connection between Dottie Amtey’s actions and her husband’s death.
“You take your victims as you find them, and if they have some pre-existing condition, and you cause that condition to draw to a point that it causes death, then you may have committed a murder.”
Now, Amtey’s rebuilding her life. Her family has moved out of the house on Carbon Hill Court and she’s living with friends for now.
The manslaughter charge will keep her from inheriting money or government benefits from her late husband, she said.
A computer programmer by trade, she’s looking for work and a new home. And she’s thinking of ways to help others through the legal system.
“I survived,” she said.