As It Happens

Otto Warmbier coroner speaks out, challenges Trump's 'tortured beyond belief' claim

Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco examined the body of the American student who died after being detained in North Korea and found no evidence of physical torture — despite U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet saying there was.
American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Jon Chol Jin/Associated Press )
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Story transcript

The coroner who completed a virtual autopsy on Otto Warmbier — the American student who died in June after being held in North Korea for 17 months — says that Warmbier was not physically tortured. 

"If by torture you mean...broken bones and cuts and cigarette burns or, you know, finger nails being pulled out and so forth, no," Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

This comes after Warmbier's parents went on Fox News and said their son had his bottom teeth rearranged while in North Korea.    

The University of Virginia student was accused of stealing a propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. Then, after 17 months in detention, he was returned to the United States in a coma. Warmbier died in June, shortly after his return.

Now, the the Hamilton County Coroner who examined Warmbier's body has come forward to talk about her findings. Sammarco spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how her virtual autopsy differs from other reports, including from U.S. President Donald Trump. Here is part of their conversation. 

Dr. Sammarco, how did the results of your examination compare with what you ... heard Otto Warmbier's father say on TV?

We did a virtual autopsy, which is a CT scan of the body, and we had a forensic odontologist, which is a forensic dentist, take a look at the images of the mandible and the lower teeth.

And he felt that the changes in the teeth in the lower deck of teeth were due to developmental anomaly rather than trauma. And he told me very frankly and very directly that there was no evidence of trauma to the teeth. No dental trauma whatsoever.

This was a virtual autopsy. Why couldn't you do to a real autopsy?

The discussion from the very beginning was how much would we gain from a conventional autopsy 15 months after what we understand was the insult. 

We didn't think a conventional autopsy would yield more information than what we already had with a virtual autopsy and the external examination. And then, on top of that, we did have to consider the family's objection to a conventional autopsy.

Sammarco says that "there a lot of horrible things that you can do to a human being that don't leave signs." (The Associated Press/John Minchillo)

Were there signs of torture?

I've been asked that question several times. It depends on your definition of torture. We still don't know what happened to him to put him into that anoxic encephalopathy state. But if by torture you mean...broken bones and cuts and cigarette burns or, you know, finger nails being pulled out and so forth, no. But there a lot of horrible things that you can do to a human being that don't leave signs.

What do you think could have caused the vegetative state? Just to hypothesize. What kinds of things could put him in that state?

The types of things that cause global anoxic encephalopathy would be interruption of blood flow to the brain or succession of breathing. So anything that would cause somebody to stop breathing or anything that would interrupt or stop the blood flow to the brain. And it could be anything from cardiac arrest to suffocation to over sedation. And, unfortunately, we can't be anymore specific because we don't know what circumstances existed at that time.

Why do you think that Otto Warmbier's parents are so insistent that he was tortured?

They're grieving parents. And I can't even imagine their pain and the nightmares that they have had for so many months, you know, over a year, not knowing what was happening to their baby, their child. And everybody grieves differently and I think that they have to obtain an equilibrium for themselves and they have to be allowed to grieve in whatever way they can so that they can live with this and live with the loss of their precious son.

U.S. President Donald Trump says that perhaps his 'fire and fury' warning to North Korea 'wasn't tough enough.' (Evan Vucci/Associated Press, Korean Central News Agency/Reuters, Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

They seem to be being used politically. U.S. President Donald Trump called the Warmbier's appearance on that show, on Fox, a great interview and said that their son Otto was "tortured beyond belief." And this is being said in the midst of some pretty serious saber rattling between North Korea and the United States that suggests the possibility of nuclear war. So did that influence your decision to come forward and to say what you knew?

You know, we have kept silent about the circumstances of this case and our role in it, other than a press statement very early on saying that we had received him, out of deference to the family. But when there were facts being provided to international media, when there were statements  being made... I believed that the facts should be presented and the chips should fall as they will, but based on fact. As far as any political motive, you know, the president and the state department obviously have more information than we do about what happened to Otto so we can only go based on our examination of Otto and the CT scan and the medical records that have been provided to us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with  Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco. 

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