A coroner's finding that a Huntington Harbour woman died of apparent natural causes after a shipwreck vindicates her husband, who is accused by her children of being responsible for the death, the husband's lawyer said Thursday.
"I thought I was going to win anyway. This makes it even easier," said Clement Jacomini, lawyer for Kenneth Barwick.
"It's a great vindication for Kenneth," Jacomini added. "They ruled out any possible way that he could have killed her. He had no reason to kill her."
Barwick is accused in two lawsuits of killing Nancy Ann Barwick after a shipwreck off the Caribbean island of Aruba in 1985.
The lawyer for the children, Tony, Mark and Paula Galyean, said the autopsy findings will not hinder their case.
"The true cause of death, due to a strange quirk of circumstances, will ultimately be determined by a jury," attorney John Whelan said.
Nancy Barwick died Feb. 20, 1985, on Aruba after she, Kenneth Barwick and crew members of the SS Vera fled in a lifeboat after the Vera began to capsize. Aruban officials listed the cause of death as a heart attack.
Whelan has suggested that the shipping venture was in fact a smuggling operation masterminded by Kenneth Barwick, which he scuttled out of fear of being caught.
Kenneth Barwick has said repeatedly that he attempted to save his wife. He claims that his stepchildren are trying to deny him his right as surviving spouse to one-third of her estate, valued at more than $1.2 million.
California law forbids inheritance by anyone who "intentionally and feloniously killed" the benefactor. To win their Orange County Probate Court case, the children must in effect prove that Kenneth Barwick murdered his wife.
The children obtained a court order to exhume Nancy Barwick's body in January. The autopsy ruled out death by strangulation, toxin or trauma. C. Robert Dambacher, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office, said Thursday that the official result was reached by process of elimination.
"We did not establish a cause of death," Dambacher said. "We said apparent natural causes because we ruled out everything else."
Murder can be established by proof that death occurred as the result of criminal negligence-wanton disregard for the life of others. Whelan said evidence of the circumstances surrounding Nancy Barwick's death will meet that requirement.
A trial scheduled for March 7 in Santa Ana almost certainly will be delayed while Whelan appeals other related legal rulings.
Critical to the case against Kenneth Barwick are conflicts between his account of the sinking and that of Capt. Hans Borgwardt.
In a sworn statement, Borgwardt told of discovering a false partition in the vessel that had recently been installed. When he asked about it, Kenneth Barwick told him to mind his own business.
When the boat abruptly changed direction after picking up a load of fertilizer, Borgwardt questioned Nancy Barwick. She told him the vessel was part of a cocaine smuggling operation, he said.
As the captain tried to save the boat when it began taking on water, Kenneth Barwick ordered him not to let it run aground, Borgwardt said. It sank in deep water.
"If the death . . . was related to the operation of the vessel before her death, the operation of the vessel would be at issue," Whelan said. "And if the death was somehow related to or caused by gross criminal negligence, that too may support a finding of an intentional and felonious homicide."