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Pathologist Falsely Accuses Parents
June 13, 2005 permalink
We missed the significance of this article until a reader pointed out that many parents falsely accused of homicide through the efforts of Dr Charles Smith later lost their other children to Children's Aid. We have more comments at the end of this article from MacLean's.
June 7, 2005 - 17:40
Coroner orders review of Toronto pathologist accused of mishandling cases
TORONTO (CP) - The work of a forensic pathologist criticized for his handling of suspicious child deaths will be put under the microscope amid fears of wrongful convictions and allegations of bungled autopsies, Ontario's chief coroner announced Tuesday.The review will cover 40 cases in which Dr. Charles Smith did the autopsy or provided an expert opinion - all of the criminally suspicious cases he has handled at the laboratory in the world-renowned Hospital for Sick Children since 1991.
"This review will focus on whether the conclusions reached by Dr. Smith in his autopsy or consultation reports can be supported by information and materials available," said Dr. Barry McLellan.
"This will be a major undertaking."
The aim is to restore public confidence in the system, McLellan said.
Smith was once considered the province's leading expert on pediatric forensics.
However, judges and medical authorities have criticized his work and conclusions. Charges have collapsed in several criminal cases he handled.
Kirsten Kramar, a criminologist at the University of Winnipeg, said the planned review was "great news."
In 2000, Kramar was researching a book on infanticide at the Ontario's coroner's office when she stumbled on what she considered to be a striking pattern in Smith's conclusions in more than 25 baby deaths.
"In every single case, he determined there was foul play," Kramar said from Winnipeg.
"Smith in particular would always say that it was murder - someone had murdered this child and (his) authority carried a lot of weight in front of the courts."
In one notorious case, Smith concluded that a seven-year-old girl in Kingston, Ont., had been stabbed to death, while several other experts concluded she was mauled by a pit bull.
The Crown dropped the murder charge against the girl's mother, but not before she'd spent 3 1/2 years in jail. She launched a lawsuit against Smith and police.
"It's very, very important that his cases are looked at," said Kramar. "I've never seen anything like this in Canada."
McLellan said he didn't know how many criminal charges or convictions might have hinged on Smith's work.
Smith was not taking media calls Tuesday.
McLellan announced a sweeping audit of all forensic exhibits handled by the Sick Kids lab in March after material in one case handled by Smith could not be found.
Lawyers had wanted a tissue sample for an independent evaluation, believing it could exonerate William Mullins-Johnson of murdering his four-year-old niece Valin.
The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., man was convicted in 1994 at age 24 and has been in jail for the past 12 years.
Smith and four other specialists provided "consultation reports" and he was the only one to conclude Valin had been sexually assaulted at the time of death.
The missing tissue was found during the audit last week in an envelope on Smith's desk.
Smith still does pathology at Sick Kids but no longer works in the hospital's arm's-length pediatric forensic pathology unit, which serves the coroner's office.
Sick Kids spokeswoman Helen Simeon said Smith's work for the hospital was independently evaluated last month and found to be "up to the level that is expected."
The pending review by the coroner's office, whose motto is "We speak for the dead to protect the living," will likely have no impact on Smith's status with the hospital, Simeon said.
The controversy has prompted calls for a public inquiry but Attorney General Michael Bryant ruled that out - at least until after the coroner's review is done.
"I don't want to do anything to prejudge or interfere with his review," Bryant said.
McLellan said Smith has done no autopsies in criminally suspicious cases since 2001 or worked for his office since December 2003.
He also said the formal review may be done by a panel of independent pathologists.
"The major impetus here is that of public confidence and responding to the concerns that we're well aware of arising from some high profile cases," said McLellan.
He said he would announce specifics of the review in a few weeks but said the audit has reassured him that forensic exhibits are being properly stored and tracked.
Source: McLean's website
Notes and Comments: Dr Smith is under review in 40 cases. In press reports since the announcement of the review, these cases have been mentioned:
James Stewart in a book called Blind Eye describes the career of Dr Michael Swango, who has murdered dozens of patients over two decades in practice. The question dealt with in the book was, how can the medical establishment ignore such a person, instead of putting an end to his mayhem?
While the facts are not all in, this may be another case of a rogue doctor who harms people, not with intravenous poison, but with false accusations. With current attitudes toward child abuse, the rest of the world is too eager to believe a pathologist who reports every baby death as homicide.
Other professionals besides Dr Smith assist Children's Aid in taking children from their parents regardless of the facts. Children's Aid has a supply of psychiatrists they can rely on to give unfavorable reports on all families referred. And Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children houses the SCAN Clinic (Suspected Child Abuse and Neglect), whose mission is to separate children from their parents.