Pathologist's mistakes exposed; Dr. Charles Smith erred in 20 child-death cases: panel
Friday, April 20, 2007 @ 00:00
The forensic pathologist whose errors helped put a Kingston woman behind bars for nearly two years made mistakes in another 20 suspicious child-death cases he handled over a 10-year period, an international panel of experts concluded.
Because of the mistakes by Dr. Charles Smith, more than a dozen people may have been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. One person remains behind bars.
"Errors in 20 pediatric forensic pathology reports over 10 years is totally unacceptable," Attorney General Michael Bryant said at a news conference at Queen's Park yesterday where the province's chief coroner revealed the findings of five renowned pathologists who reviewed 45 child-death cases handled by Smith between 1991 and 2002.
Bryant said Crown attorneys have been assigned to handle 13 questionable cases where there were convictions and "restrictions of liberty." In most cases, the convicted person has now been released from jail or prison, although in three or four cases, the person still faces some restriction. In one case, the accused was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
In all of the cases, Crown lawyers will provide information to defence counsel and decisions will be made about how to proceed. It could result in a number of steps, he said, such as applications to introduce fresh evidence or applications to the federal justice minister to review a case.
Dr. Barry McLellan, the chief coroner, also said he has passed information about Smith's performance to the professional body that disciplines doctors, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons. "The appropriate information has been passed on," McLellan said.
Smith is practising in British Columbia, according to online registration information held by the college.
McLellan said he was surprised and concerned by the findings of the review, which he ordered in 2005. The review began after a number of child-death cases that hinged on Smith's work collapsed. Smith was the director of Ontario's pediatric forensic pathology unit at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
"If there's been one wrongful conviction, that's a terrible thing," McLellan said.
He said the review findings in each of the 45 cases is being passed on to the families of those affected, wherever possible, and lawyers.
Peter Wardle, the lawyer who represents Louise Reynolds, said he hasn't yet received the report but expects to receive it soon.
"I've been told what it says," Wardle told the Whig-Standard in a telephone interview last night. "It says that the people who did the review did not agree with Dr. Smith's conclusions."
Smith concluded that Reynolds stabbed Sharon to death with scissors or a knife.
Wardle represents Reynolds in a civil lawsuit against Smith and Kingston Police.
Reynolds was charged with second-degree murder, largely because of Smith's opinion. He later changed his opinion after other forensic experts concluded a pit bull terrier inflicted most of Sharon's injuries.
Reynolds, who no longer lives in Kingston, spent nearly two years in custody awaiting a trial that did not take place.
Wardle said yesterday's revelations help the civil case.
"It helps us in the sense that I think it's going to be pretty hard for Dr. Smith to now say that in any of these cases that he did a good job," the lawyer said.
A Peterborough woman who was wrongly accused of murdering her daughter, based on faulty work by Smith, also is suing him.
Top criminal lawyers said the findings mark an unprecedented dark day for the administration of justice.
"In nine [cases], there is a likely miscarriage of justice," said James Lockyer, who spoke at Queen's Park after McLellan and Bryant. Lockyer represents William Mullins-Johnson, who spent 12 years in prison, convicted of murdering his four-year-old niece, after Smith concluded the girl was sodomized and strangled. Other experts have since concluded she died of natural causes.
Mullins-Johnson, who is free on bail awaiting a review of his case by the federal justice minister, attended yesterday's news conference.
"Something was made of nothing and my life was taken from me," said the tall, soft-spoken man.
He was asked what he would say to Smith.
"It's on your head," he said, turning to walk away from several dozen reporters.
Lockyer said the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted also is concerned about two additional cases where Smith was involved, beyond the nine where it believes a miscarriage of justice took place.
In one of those other cases, Smith provided advice and "his opinion permeated the case."
None of the cases have been identified.
The association is demanding a public inquiry.
"It is our position that only public scrutiny can potentially protect the interest of the citizens of this province from future failings," noted defence lawyer Brian Greenspan said.
Greenspan noted that in many of Smith's cases, parents were led to believe their infants and children were murdered.
"It may well be that the deaths of these infants and children may well have been accidental," he said.
Bryant said a public inquiry is still a possibility, depending on conclusions reached by Lesage, who will work with a senior pathologist.
Wardle said he thinks there will have to be a public inquiry at some point to explain how Smith's colleagues and superiors failed to see or stop his errors.
"How did he function for so long?" Wardle wondered. "He was protected by some people."
There were warning signs as early as 1991, Wardle noted, when a judge in Timmins criticized Smith for concluding a one-year-old died of shaken baby syndrome. Ten defence experts contradicted Smith.
"We knew his work was flawed in our case and we've known for some time that it was flawed in other cases, but it really is extraordinary that it's gotten to this point," Wardle said.
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