US coroner investigating death of student freed from N Korea

CINCINNATI (AP) — A coroner’s office in Ohio is investigating the death of a 22-year-old college student who died shortly after his return to the U.S. after nearly a year and a half in North Korean detention, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The spokesman for Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammaraco said the office “accepted the case” of Otto Warmbier, who died Monday in a Cincinnati hospital. Justin Weber told The Associated Press that a news conference is expected later to provide more information.

Wambier’s parents did not cite a specific cause of death, but cited “awful, torturous mistreatment” by North Korea. Doctors had described Warmbier’s condition as a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause

He arrived in Ohio on June 13 after being held for more than 17 months.

North Korea must bear “heavy responsibility” for Warmbier’s death, said South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

He said in an interview on “CBS This Morning” broadcast Tuesday that while it’s not known for sure what happened, there can be speculation that North Korea made “unjust and cruel treatments” to Warmbier.

Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group and was convicted of subversion. He was put before North Korean officials and journalists for a televised “confession.”

“I have made the worst mistake of my life!” he exclaimed, choking up as he begged to be allowed to reunite with his parents and two younger siblings.

He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labor. His family said it was told he had been in a coma since soon after his sentencing.

Doctors said he suffered extensive loss of brain tissue and “profound weakness and contraction” of his muscles, arms and legs. His eyes opened and blinked but without any sign that he understood verbal commands or his surroundings.

Unresponsive wakefulness is a new medical term for persistent vegetative state. Patients in this condition can open their eyes but do not respond to commands. People can live in a state of unresponsive wakefulness for many years with the chances of recovery depending on the extent of the brain injury.

North Korea said Warmbier went into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. Doctors in Cincinnati said they found no active sign of botulism or evidence of beatings.

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