In a 2-1 decision Wednesday, Commonwealth Court judges said they had “no choice under the law” but to grant the city’s appeal to keep a civil suit filed by the parents of Ellen Greenberg — whose death by 20 stab wounds in 2011 was initially ruled homicide, then changed to suicide — from going to trial.
Greenberg’s parents, Joshua and Sandra Greenberg of Harrisburg, filed a civil suit in 2019 against the city Medical Examiner’s Office and Marlon Osbourne, the pathologist who performed their daughter’s autopsy, seeking to have the cause of death reclassified as homicide or undetermined.
The Commonwealth Court denied the city’s appeal without ruling on whether the manner of death could or should be changed, instead limiting its decision by saying the Greenbergs lacked standing to bring their claim in the first place.
Despite ruling in favor of the city, the judges were explicit in their assessment of the authorities’ handling of the case, writing that “… this court is acutely aware of the deeply flawed investigation of the victim’s death by City of Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) detectives, City of Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO), and the MEO [Medical Examiner’s Office].”
Before delving into their 39-page opinion, which included a review of the investigations, the judges stated that they did so “in the interests of justice” and “with hopes that equity may one day prevail for the victim and her loved ones.”
The Greenbergs described themselves as “disappointed but not surprised.”
“I’m more surprised by what they wrote in our favor than by how completely they ruled against us,” Joshua Greenberg said. “It appears that someone has a conscience here.” They may not have been judges in the traditional sense, and they may not have wanted to change the law, but they are certain that something is wrong.”
Greenbergs’ lawyer in Center City, Joseph Podraza, said he was “shocked.”
“As I read all of the opinions, both majority and dissenting, everyone seems to agree that there’s a homicide here,” Podraza said. “It is very upsetting to hear a court say there is nothing that can be done.”
The city, according to Ava Schwemler, spokesperson for the Law Department, is pleased with the ruling but disagrees with the court’s assertion that the investigations were flawed.
“The city defended against this action solely on the basis of existing law,” Schwemler explained in an email. “The police file was not part of the case record in this case.”
Greenberg, a 27-year-old first-grade teacher, was discovered with a 10-inch knife lodged in her chest in the kitchen of their Manayunk apartment by her fiancé, Samuel Goldberg, on Jan. 26, 2011.
According to police, her death was ruled a suicide because the apartment door — which Goldberg claimed he broke down — was locked from the inside, there was no sign of an intruder, and Greenberg had no defensive wounds.
However, at the autopsy the following morning, Osbourne discovered a total of 20 stab wounds on Greenberg’s body, including 10 to the back of her neck, and ruled her death a homicide.
The findings were publicly contested by police, and Osbourne later changed his ruling to suicide.
As first detailed in a March 2019 Inquirer report, the Greenbergs retained numerous forensic experts who questioned authorities’ findings.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Glynnis D. Hill ruled in October 2021 that the family’s suit could proceed to trial, which the city appealed.
In February 2022, the Commonwealth Court heard the appeal, saying it would consider whether the Greenbergs had standing to seek a revision in their daughter’s manner of death and whether relief was available to compel a revision of the death certificate.
In November, a panel of three Commonwealth judges — Patricia A. McCullough, Ellen Ceisler, and Lori A. Dumas — heard arguments in the appeal. They made their decision nearly ten months later.
Despite the fact that “the facts surrounding this matter are extremely disturbing,” Dumas and Ceisler ruled that the Greenbergs lacked standing to bring the suit in the first place and thus did not need to rule on the second issue.
The dissenting opinion was written by McCullough.
The Greenbergs and Podraza have stated that they will consider appealing the ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
A second civil suit they filed against members of the Medical Examiner’s Office, the Police Department, and the District Attorney’s Office is still pending, seeking monetary damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The Chester County District Attorney’s Office is also conducting an independent investigation into Greenberg’s death. The case was referred to them in August 2022 due to a conflict of interest because DA Larry Krasner had represented the Greenbergs in their fight for answers in the case while he was in private practice. A spokesperson for that office did not respond immediately when asked about the status of the investigation.
When asked if the city would reopen the case in light of the judges’ claims that the initial investigations were flawed, Schwemler stated that the city stands by its suicide decision and that the authority to reopen the case now rests with Chester County.
“The city is now, and has always been, deeply sympathetic to Joshua and Sandra Greenberg’s pain and deep grief over the loss of their daughter,” Schwemler wrote. “If Mr. and Mrs. Greenberg have new evidence about their daughter’s death, we urge them to present it to the investigators in Chester County.”