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Lianne Gagnon accused of murder by Dr Charles Smith

February 7, 2008 permalink

Sudbury mother Lianne Gagnon was exonerated by police in the death of her baby. A second more harsh investigation two years later also exonerated her. Nevertheless, her second child was taken by CAS based on the opinion of pathologist Dr Charles Smith, who later admitted his incompetence.



Phil Grimes
Maurice (left), Lianne and Angela Gagnon sit at their kitchen table in their New Sudbury home. Maurice and Angela fought to clear their daughter's name after she was accused of killing her son, Nicholas.; Lianne Gagnon was accused of killing her son, Nicholas, based on flawed conclusions by would-be expert Dr. Charles Smith.
gino donato/the sudbury star

The face of the innocent; A father's extraordinary love and fierce protection of his daughter

Contemplating the reception awaiting him surely would have brought a smile to Maurice Gagnon's face as he drove home from the Sudbury airport that late fall afternoon in 1995.

There was plenty of joy and contentment in the Gagnon household at the time, the source of which more often than not was Maurice's first grandchild, Nicholas.

"Nicholas was quite a character," says Maurice. "He always made us laugh."

Even at 11 months old, Nicholas "had a way of making people laugh - purposely. He was very advanced - he was walking at nine months."

A career civil servant, Maurice was a manager with the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation in the mid-1990s. Although based in Sudbury, the job required regular visits to the ministry's head office in Toronto. Throughout 1995, those trips to the provincial capital featured an additional entry squeezed into Maurice's itinerary.

"Every time I went to Toronto, I'd go over to the Disney store at the Eaton Centre and buy Nicholas a Disney outfit," he says. And Nov. 30, 1995, was no exception.

"That day, I had one in the car for him," Maurice says. "It was sort of a lumberjack thing, with a plaid shirt and a Disney logo on it; I think it was Mickey Mouse."

Little could Maurice have imagined, heading home that day, that he never would see Nicholas in another Disney ensemble.

As he rounded the last street corner on his drive back from the airport, he was struck by a sense of dread. His daughter Lianne - Nicholas's mother - was in a frantic state, standing outside a neighbour's home.

"She was just panicking," Maurice recalls.

"I couldn't understand what was happening, why she was outside with no coat on, because it was cold and there was snow on the ground. But I knew damn well something was wrong. I pulled into the driveway and went running over there. I ran into (the neighbour's) house and Nicholas was on the floor. Then the ambulance showed up and he went to the hospital."

Among Maurice and Angela Gagnon's fondest memories of their child-rearing years is a supper-time ritual shared with their daughter, Lianne.

"I still recall it ... it started when she was in elementary school," says Maurice, seated at the dining table in his New Sudbury home.

"Angie and I both worked and I was usually home before her, so I'd start supper. Then Angie would come home and we'd both be in the kitchen, getting supper ready. And Lianne, virtually every night, would sit on the floor, with her back against the fridge or cupboard or whatever, and just talk. She'd tell us what she did that day. Every day we had that routine, where she'd come and sit on the floor and talk to us while we were making supper.

"I still recall that clearly."

And so it was that a simple routine following the workday would come to provide such treasured and enduring memories for Maurice and Angie Gagnon. It was the golden hour, a time of day to be anticipated, when the family came together and the stresses of the outside world dissipated through the preparation of a meal and the animated conversation of a child.

"Lianne was always like that with us," says Maurice. "She would always discuss things with us; we were very close that way. She was very open with us about everything, even as a teenager. If she had a problem she discussed it with us. She wasn't one of those rebellious teens who lock themselves in their room and you never see them. It was a very close relationship."

Lianne was the second child born to Maurice and Angie, who were married in Sudbury in 1964. Their son, Maurice Jr., was nine years older and quite a different personality than his sister.

"Lianne loved school, right from the get-go. She always did very well academically," says Maurice, "whereas our son didn't like school so much. He was intelligent, don't get me wrong, but I don't think he liked the structure and the rules of the system."

So when Maurice Jr. graduated high school, post-secondary studies were not high on his priority list. Instead, he jumped headlong into the working world, starting with menial jobs in his hometown before moving to Ottawa, where he made a home with a wife and two sons and built a successful moving company he still operates today.

Lianne, in contrast, was a top student. From high school, she enrolled at Laurentian University, pursued a double-major and ultimately graduated with an honours degree in history and English.

At home, "she was no trouble at all," says Maurice. "She was self-disciplined. We didn't have to put curfews on her, I mean, when she went out on a date, she'd call home twice to let us know where she was.

"My son was a little different," he says with a chuckle. "He was the one who would want to stay out all night. We were more worried with him as a teenager."

It was not until Lianne was in university, Maurice recalls, that he and Angie were confronted with major emotional tumult from their daughter. In the midst of a three-year relationship with her boyfriend, a fellow Laurentian student, Lianne became pregnant.

"She told her mother about it first - they were afraid to tell me," Maurice remembers.

"I think our first reaction was a normal first reaction. We were very disappointed, thinking about her schooling and her career and what would happen with that. But then it was time to discuss it and that's what we did, we discussed the options."

The parental shock and disappointment soon gave way to acceptance, then enthusiasm over the arrival of a first grandchild.

"One of the options we discussed was that she would stay right here and we'd fix up something downstairs and there would be all three of us here to take care of the baby," says Maurice. "Ultimately, that was the decision that was made. We supported her throughout the pregnancy and when Nicholas was born there was no question he was coming here and we'd all be together as a family."

Nicholas Maurice Gagnon was born Jan. 2, 1995. Shortly afterwards, Lianne and Nicholas's father separated. But life was good in the Gagnon home; there was a new reason for Maurice, Angie and Lianne to look forward to the golden hour at the end of the day.

It had been a normal, pleasant day at home for Lianne and Nicholas, who as usual was in good spirits. Then late in the afternoon of Nov. 30, 1995, Nicholas wandered over to a sewing machine table in the living room, bumped his head and began crying.

It appeared a typical, everyday mishap that can inevitably befall a toddler clumsily investigating his surroundings. But what came next for the Gagnon family would be anything but normal.

That seemingly insignificant incident in the living room would lead to an unbearable family tragedy and the vicious persecution of Lianne for allegedly murdering her son. The emotional torment would be accompanied by financial devastation as Maurice and Angela Gagnon fought to defend their daughter against the accusations of police, child-welfare authorities and a supposedly infallible forensic pathologist.

The family would be haunted by the recurring ordeal for more than a decade before an extraordinary public inquiry provided a final, unequivocal vindication.

As Lianne Gagnon leaned over to console her son on that fateful November afternoon, she was struck by how suddenly he stopped crying. As she picked up Nicholas, his eyes rolled back and he stopped breathing. Lianne's instinctive reaction was to tap her son on the back to get him breathing again, but it had no effect. Then, she thought of a neighbour, a nurse who lived across the street. With Nicholas in her arms, she rushed to the neighbour's house and the nurse began resuscitation attempts.

By the time Nicholas arrived at hospital, he was in full cardiac arrest. He died shortly after.

In the hours following the tragedy, Lianne was interviewed by a Sudbury Regional Police officer and provided a detailed statement of what had happened.

On Dec. 1, the day following Nicholas's death, an autopsy was performed by Sudbury pathologist Dr. T.C. Chen. Chen concluded the cause of death was consistent with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Later, upon further review by Chen and Sudbury coroner Dr. James Deacon, the official cause of death was revised to Sudden Unexplained Death.

Neither the autopsy results nor the police intervention provided any cause to suspect Nicholas's death was anything but an accidental, unexplained tragedy. In fact, the city's chief of police - a Gagnon family friend - offered his support following the death and attended the boy's funeral.

At that point, the Gagnons would have rightly assumed they would be left to their grief and the daunting prospect of rebuilding their lives. That is precisely what occurred until mid-1997, when the family was visited by a nightmare more shocking and disturbing than the tragic loss of Nicholas.

More than 18 months after Nicholas's death, the Gagnon family would become victims of the catastrophically flawed work of Dr. Charles Smith, an ill-trained, error-prone pathologist who undeservedly attained status as a pre-eminent specialist in the field of forensic pediatric pathology.

It was Smith's would-be expertise and disastrous conclusions that would result in the murder accusation against Lianne Gagnon and inflict new horrors on a family that struggled so long to cope with the loss of a child.

The full weight of state resources would be brought to bear against Lianne, as authorities attempted - often with dubious methods - to prove ultimately scurrilous allegations.

In addition to the murder accusation, the Gagnon family would endure the disinterment of their beloved Nicholas, the seizure from the casket of a mother's goodbye letter to her child, a wiretap sting operation and a decision to apprehend Lianne's second child at birth.

It would be the type of grievous, unrelenting investigation that would be inflicted on parents and caregivers in many child-death cases during Charles Smith's notorious reign as top dog of forensic pediatric pathology in Ontario.

Several of those cases resulted in wrongful convictions, imprisonment of parents or caregivers, as well as children being apprehended - sometimes permanently - from their parents.

One might well have expected Lianne Gagnon to suffer a similar fate, given the magnitude of the case built against her and the zealousness with which it was prosecuted by authorities.

Instead, Lianne ultimately was vindicated in what would later be revealed as a story of a father's extraordinary love and fierce protection of his daughter; and his subsequent crusade to bring down a powerful authority figure who inflicted tremendous misery on so many.

Source: Sudbury Star

ACCENT: Innocence prevails; Lianne Gagnon withstood desperate attempts to extract murder confession

Though she would be revisiting the most-devastating period of her life, it was nevertheless an unsuspecting Lianne Gagnon who walked into Sudbury Regional Police headquarters on June 19, 1997.

The 21-year-old Laurentian University student had been told police needed to tie up the proverbial loose end in their file on the 1995 death of Lianne's son Nicholas. There was nothing to suggest the authorities had reconsidered their classification of the toddler's death as a sudden unexplained tragedy.

"When the police came to the door that afternoon and said they wanted me to come down to the station, the reason they gave was that they wanted to close Nicholas's file completely and they just needed one final statement," Lianne recalls.

Once at the station, however, Lianne was escorted to an interview room equipped with video recording equipment. Her head soon would be spinning as she learned she was a murder suspect, that an unimpeachable forensic expert was convinced of her guilt and that in a few days the exhumation of her beloved Nicholas would only add to the overwhelming evidence of her crime.

Despite being sandbagged, subjected to a long and gruelling interrogation in which she was confronted with supposedly damning evidence, Lianne Gagnon never swayed from her insistence that she could not possibly be responsible for her son's death.

But as the intense interrogation wore on, Lianne says, she realized, "there's a possibility that I could go to jail, based on the word of this guy, who I had never met before. I had no idea who this guy was. But that possibility became very real and very, very scary."

At that point, having already been refused a request to speak with her parents, Lianne asked to see a lawyer. The interrogation mercifully came to an end. Before she left, however, Lianne was placed in a room where she was told she could have a private conversation with her fiance, Pierre.

Unbeknownst to Lianne and Pierre that day back in 1997, their conservation was secretly recorded by police investigators hoping to illicitly obtain an incriminating statement. Much to the contrary, however, what they heard was an innocent, emotional, exchange of a soon-to-be-married couple trying to make sense of an unthinkable turn of events.

A transcript of that supposedly private conversation came to light recently at the Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario. The inquiry, mandated to review systemic failings of the province's pediatric forensic pathology system from 1981 to 2001, was established in large part due to tragedies caused by the scandalous shortcomings of pathologist Dr. Smith.

The inquiry is looking into Smith's work in 20 child death cases in which his grievous errors and questionable actions resulted in criminal prosecution or suspicion of parents or caregivers. Several cases resulted in either false imprisonment or the apprehension of children from innocent parents.

Those injustices occurred, the inquiry has been told, because Dr. Charles Smith somehow attained unquestioned prominence as an expert in forensic pediatric pathology, despite having little formal training or qualifications in the complex field.

Nevertheless, in the 1990s in particular, Charles Smith's findings in child death cases were often taken as gospel in the criminal justice system.

Such was the predicament facing Lianne Gagnon in 1997.

A Sudbury coroner's simple request for clarification in the file on Nicholas Gagnon's death had resulted in the document finding its way onto Charles Smith's desk in Toronto, where he was a member of a provincial review committee for child death cases.

Lianne Gagnon had always maintained her 11-month-old son collapsed and stopped breathing after accidentally bumping his head on a sewing machine table in the family home. A local investigation had found no red flags to signal any criminal suspicion in the toddler's death.

More than 18 months later, however, as he reviewed Nicholas's file, Charles Smith arrived at the type of erroneous conclusions he had reached in other child death cases.

When Smith met with Sudbury police in the spring of 1997, he evidently was preceded by the sterling reputation he had built over the previous several years. The would-be expert convinced the police service's top brass that Lianne Gagnon likely had killed her son and that the toddler's body should be exhumed for a second, proper autopsy.

That scenario was laid out for the public inquiry last week during testimony by Greater Sudbury Police Insp. Bob Keetch, who as a sergeant in 1997 was the lead investigator in the Gagnon case.

"Based on the information that was being provided to us by Dr. Smith and the discussions that ... had taken place, we were of the belief that Lianne was responsible for Nicholas' death," Keetch said of the views of senior police officers who met with Smith.

"I think the belief or common belief surrounding that table was that Lianne was directly responsible for Nicholas' death."

And it was Smith's unassailable expertise that provided the ammunition for the searing interrogation of Lianne Gagnon by two Sudbury police detectives on June 19, 1997.

In their recorded interrogation of Lianne, transcripts of which have been filed with the inquiry, Det. Sgts. Keetch and David West hammered away at the incontrovertible nature of the evidence they had suddenly obtained from an unnamed, expert pathologist.

"Lianne, both you and I know that there is more here than what you've told us about ... When the coroner re-examined the case, there's no doubt in the pathologist's mind that Nicholas did not die of natural causes," West told the young woman.

"We know that this wasn't an accidental thing. The pathologist is firm on that that this is not an accidental thing," West continued.

"That end of it, you have to understand that these people, they're professional who, the pathologist, the head pathologist for Ontario - I mean, this is a man who's not making idle speculation. This is a man who knows and who has empowered that knowledge to us that his death was not natural. That's the reality of it."

Although she had been advised of her rights, Lianne agreed to proceed with the interview without a lawyer. In retrospect, she would remark how surprising it was that she weathered the onslaught for so long, even when faced with unequivocal accusations.

"The circumstances that you've given for Nicholas's death do not suit the case here and that leaves myself with no doubt whatsoever that you're responsible for his death," West told her at one point. "And what I would like to do is I would like to talk to you and understand fully how that happened. I know that would be a tremendous burden for you to carry and I think the thing to do with is that, when we make a mistake, then the thing to do is to talk about it and explain how it happened. I know that this was probably something that, I believe, was an unfortunate event that happened that day ..."

Lianne protested her innocence throughout, until she could bear no more and her request for a lawyer ended the interrogation.

After their desperate attempt to extract a confession from Lianne Gagnon failed, Sudbury police turned to a sting operation to try to build their murder case. They contacted Lianne's former boyfriend - Nicholas's father - and convinced him to meet with Lianne while wearing a hidden wire, or recording device.

Lianne still has a clear recollection of the strange meeting in the summer of 1997.

"It was a couple of days before my wedding and it was the day of my fiance's grandfather's funeral," she says. "Obviously, as we found out later, the timing of all this was orchestrated by (the police) to get to me when I was supposedly stressed out and my guard would be down."

The former boyfriend "called me and said the police had contacted him and he wanted to speak to me about it," Lianne says. "He asked me if he could come and pick me up and we could go for a ride. We found out later that was because he was wired in the vehicle so police could listen to the conversation. So he took me for a ride and we parked in the parking lot at Bell Park and we talked for about an hour.

"I remember just thinking how it was really odd, the questions he was asking me. He was telling me that the police told him they were going to arrest me before my wedding. I was completely destroyed. I came back home so upset. I told my father and he said, 'that doesn't make sense.' I finally said, 'take me home;' I had enough. When I finally got home I told him, 'come into the house and tell my father everything you just told me, tell him what the police told you.' But he refused."

Of all the details of the police investigation of Lianne, the most-galling for the Gagnon family was a recent reference in the public inquiry to former Sudbury Police Chief Alex McCauley.

In 1997, McCauley not only headed the local police force, he was a friend of the Gagnon family, by virtue of the fact his spouse was a longtime friend and co-worker of Maurice's wife, Angela.

So it came as a shock, the Gagnons say, when they heard during Keetch's testimony to the inquiry that McCauley became quite upset in 1997 when police had to concede they could not proceed with a murder charge against Lianne.

"The chief was ... very upset," Keetch told the inquiry. "He was one of the individuals that was of the opinion that Lianne was responsible for Nicholas's death and was quite emotional that she was going to get away with being responsible for that death."

Maurice Gagnon believes his family deserved better.

"This was a person who was supposed to be our friend," says Maurice. "He knew us. He should have said, 'wait a minute here, these are people who are not capable of hurting a child, let alone their own child.' He should have gone on the premise that, 'you're really going to have to prove to me that they did this.' But he was the one who complained most strenuously that charges wouldn't be laid."

For his part, Alex McCauley takes exception with the portrayal of his outlook of the 1997 investigation, saying he was not upset that Lianne was not being charged.

One thing that should be clear today, McCauley says, is that police investigators were largely at the mercy of the would-be expertise of a renowned pathologist such as Dr. Charles Smith.

"What frustrated me was that we were led down the garden path by this guy. When you have a pathologist that, at the time was world-renowned and he presented a pretty strong case, we're not going to go against that. But once it became unravelled, we did the right thing and there were no charges laid."

Source: Sudbury Star

Human failings and Dr. Smith - Editorial

Sudbury Star reporter Denis St. Pierre's exhaustive narrative Friday and Saturday of the nightmare that Lianne Gagnon and her family endured over the death of her 11-month-old son unveiled one astonishing development after another.

Just reading about what Gagnon and her family went through was draining. Imagine suffering as they did.

There are lessons buried in all this - of oversight, and of human failing.

Dr. Charles Smith's story is now well known. Once an esteemed pediatric child pathologist who vigorously - even belligerently - pursued cases in a manner that was beyond his mandate, he has been thoroughly impugned as an incompetent, under-trained doctor who ignored facts, bullied investigators and lied under oath. He left a trail of persecuted innocents in his wake, sending some people to jail - a Sault Ste Marie man for 12 years - and subjecting Sudbury's Gagnon family to a dreadful experience. A panel of outside experts concluded Smith made errors in 20 of 45 criminal investigations into suspicious child deaths from 1991 to 2001.

Gagnon's 11-month-old son Nicholas died in December 1995. She has always maintained he hit his head on a table and stopped breathing shortly thereafter. The case was reviewed by a pathologist and a coroner and was investigated by the local police, but no charges were laid.

Eighteen months later, in came Smith. He concluded - incorrectly - that the child had multiple injuries and that Gagnon likely killed her son. Gagnon, then a 21-year-old Laurentian University student, was subjected to a grueling interrogation by local police, her conversations with intimate friends were eavesdropped twice and her son's body was disinterred. Despite all this, police concluded after a second six-month investigation that there was no case for criminal charges. Yet Smith went ahead and contacted the Children's Aid Society, telling officials he was "99-per cent sure" Gagnon killed her son. The CAS then decided to take custody of Gagnon's second child.

No one can imagine the anguish the Gagnon family went through, dealing with the death of a child and the merciless legal pursuit that followed.

Smith now says he was simply incompetent, tearfully offering apologies to his victims during an inquiry last week. The police say they were led down the wrong path by a respected pathologist.

But the only real innocent one here is Gagnon. The lessons involved include the medical community, police and child-welfare authorities. How did Smith, without training in pediatric forensic pathology, achieve virtual star status in that field? How were his mistakes missed for a decade?

The medical community must become better accustomed to scrutinizing their own. Even the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons didn't stop Smith's carnage.

Why were the Sudbury police so quick to ignore the conclusions of the two initial doctors and their own investigation on the presumption that Smith was so much better? Do they grant anyone else infallibility status? Are the police subject to tunnel vision once they've made up their minds, the characteristic that is known to lead to wrongful convictions? In Gagnon's case, though no charges were laid, lead investigator Insp. Bob Keetch, who was then a sergeant, testified the police chief at the time, Alex McCauley, was adamant that Gagnon was guilty even after the second investigation resulted in no charges. (McCauley has denied this.)

And how is it that the CAS was able to seize Gagnon's second child despite there being no criminal charges against her?

Too many people drew too many conclusions based on one man's assertions, despite signs that brought those assertions into question.

These are human mistakes. We hope they have been learned, and we hope they will be relearned once those with this experience retire or move on.

If not, another Smith looms, and more tragedy and pain awaits.

Source: Sudbury Star