Undetermined deaths leave families without closure

Katie Barham, AJ Hadsell and Brianna Armstrong: all of their deaths were ruled 'undetermined.' The Medical Examiner can't tell if their deaths were suicide, homicide, or accidental... no matter what family members may believe.

Marcella Robertson reports on three women whose causes of death have been undetermined.

Missing, then a mystery

How did Katie Barham die?

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WVEC) -- All Jayne Barham has left of her daughter are pictures and memories.

Katie Barham's remains were found in a wooded area -- just blocks from her home -- in June 2015. Her boyfriend, Rich Fegan, reported her missing two weeks prior when she didn't return from doing laundry at their Portsmouth apartment complex.

The young mother's cause and manner of death have since been ruled "undetermined." A medical examiner was not able to say whether Katie's death was a suicide, homicide or accidental. Her mother says not knowing what happened to her daughter was yet another blow.

Jayne still remembers the devastating phone call from the medical examiner's office.

"'Ms. Barham, I just want you to know that it's inconclusive and honey -- I'm sorry, but we don't have a determination about how she died,'" she recalled.

Not knowing how someone died means it can be difficult to prove if that someone was murdered. Months have passed and no one has been charged in her death.

"I don't wish anybody to be in my shoes. I really don't, but I know there are plenty people that are," said Jayne.

Cause, not manner

Knowing how someone dies might not reveal the reason behind it

That includes the family of Anjelica "AJ" Hadsell. She was the 18-year-old Longwood University student who disappeared while she was home in Norfolk for spring break. Her body was later found behind an abandoned home in Southampton County.

It took eight weeks before the medical examiner released Hadsell's cause of death as a heroin overdose. Her manner of death, however, remains undetermined. So far, no one has been charged in her death.

Harvey Bryant is the former top prosecutor in Virginia Beach. For 13 years, Bryant prosecuted murder cases, but recalls only being able to bring a few undetermined deaths to trial. He says it is difficult... but not impossible.

"We're going to have to prove this case and convince a judge and jury beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant is responsible for this person's death, even though we don't know exactly how that occurred," said Bryant.

The former prosecutor says circumstantial evidence is key in these instances. He says something as small as a fingerprint found on the body, or even a cell phone ping can help crack the case. Bryant says there has to be a way to tie another person to someone's death, even without a cause of manner of death.

Prosecutions 'difficult, not impossible'

Circumstantial evidence can help bring cases to court

That is the case with Brianna Armstrong. Her remains were found dismembered in the Great Dismal Swamp in May, a month after she vanished. Her manner of death is also still undetermined. Prosecutors in Virginia Beach, however, believe they have enough other evidence to charge Justin Cornell, -- Armstrong's former co-worker -- with second degree murder.

On Thursday, he waived his right to a preliminary hearing, which now sends his case to the grand jury. A tentative trial date is set for January, 2016.

Jayne Barham believes Portsmouth Police waited too long to investigate her daughter's disappearance. A detective was not assigned to the case until two weeks after she was reported missing.

She says that leaves her thinking, "What if?"

"Maybe she might have been gone, but if we found her two days later, maybe we would have an idea of what happened to her. But we don't," said Jayne.

She now relies on her faith to get her through each day. This past summer, Katie's ashes were spread on her brother's grave in Florida. He was murdered in 2001, leaving Jayne with no more living children.

"They are both together up there with the angels," she said.

Even with faith in her corner, Jayne Barham still finds it difficult that she may one day have to face her biggest fear.

"That I will never have peace. That it will eat me up until the day I die, if I don't know. I won't have any peace at all."

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