CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — An autopsy didn't show the N.C. medical examiner's office exactly how 10-year-old Zahra Baker died.
But evidence from the whole investigation convinced doctors that the child was killed and her death should be called a homicide, said N.C. chief medical examiner Deborah Radisch.
Last month, Radisch's office ruled that Zahra died as a result of "undetermined homicidal violence," a finding that's rarely called for in North Carolina and other states. She talked about the ruling for the first time in an interview this week, though Radisch would not discuss details of the Hickory girl's death or the investigation.
"Undetermined homicidal violence" is used in cases in which the physical autopsy can't determine a cause of death, Radisch said, "yet the circumstances surrounding the case and the finding of the body and the condition of the body would indicate the manner of death is a homicide."
The ruling can pose problems for prosecutors, because the exact cause of death isn't known. But last summer, the Wake County district attorney's office successfully prosecuted Sherita McNeil in the first-degree murder of her 19-month-old son, even though the state medical examiner's office found the same cause of death in that case.
"It's obviously very difficult, because we can't prove exactly what killed the child. I assume they're struggling with that in Hickory as well," said Wake County assistant district attorney Melanie Shekita. "One of the things the prosecutor has to show is that the defendant was the proximate cause of the death of the child. So that's the biggest obstacle to overcome."
Elisa Baker, 42, is charged with second-degree murder in connection with her stepdaughter Zahra's death, which investigators believe took place in September. Zahra's story - she was a cancer survivor from Australia with an engaging smile - has generated international attention.
There were multiple reports of child abuse at the Baker house, according to social services officials. Investigators say Zahra was dismembered after she was killed and her body parts were scattered. They didn't find and identify those remains until November. Elisa Baker has told investigators that the girl died of an illness and that the child's father dismembered and hid the body.
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