Tuesday, December 15, 2009

20 child autopsies by pathologist questionable: review

Last Updated: Thursday, April 19, 2007 | 4:45 PM ET

An Ontario pathologist made questionable conclusions of foul play in 20 child autopsies, 13 of which resulted in criminal convictions, Ontario's chief coroner says.

Coroner Barry McLellan presented these findings Thursday, based on a review of 45 child autopsies conducted by Charles Smith between 1991 and 2002. All 45 autopsies concluded the cause of death was either homicide or criminally suspicious.

A team of international forensic experts is concerned over autopsies performed by Dr. Charles Smith.A team of international forensic experts is concerned over autopsies performed by Dr. Charles Smith.

The review, conducted by a team of international forensic experts, raised concerns with 20 of the 45 autopsies. Some concerns were minor, but several were "serious," McLellan said.

"I am very surprised with the overall results of the review, and concerned," he said.

"In a number of cases, the reviewers felt that Dr. Smith had provided an opinion regarding the cause of death that was not reasonably supported by the materials available for review."

The results of the review are being shared with defence and Crown attorneys involved in all criminal cases, McLellan said.

Michael Bryant, Ontario's attorney general, said in light of the review, his first priority will be to deal with the criminal convictions. Crown prosecutors are ready to help if cases need to be reopened, he said.

One of the 13 people convicted is still in jail.

"Errors in 20 pediatric forensic pathology reports over 10 years is totally unacceptable," Bryant said. "Totally unacceptable."

The review was launched nearly two years ago after several autopsies Smith performed were called into question. At the time, Smith was considered a leading expert on pediatric forensics at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

McLellan noted that the review only covered Smith's work dating back to 1991, a date picked arbitrarily.

"There may well be cases prior to 1991 which raise similar concerns," McLellan said, noting Smith started performing autopsies in 1981.

He said his office will work with the attorney general's office to identify all autopsies Smith performed. Anyone convicted as a result of those autopsies can ask to have Smith's findings reviewed, McLellan said.

Stigma of accusation never leaves: freed man

William Mullins-Johnson, who was convicted of murder in the wake of a Smith autopsy, said even when errors are pointed out and sentences are overturned, the stigma of the accusation remains.

Mullins-Johnson spent 12 years in jail after being convicted of killing his four-year-old niece. He was released last year when evidence surfaced showing that Smith had lost tissue samples that could have proved the girl died of natural causes.

"Something was made out of nothing and my life was taken from me," Mullins-Johnson said.

The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, an advocacy group, is calling for a full public inquiry into Smith's work.

In 2005, Smith moved to Saskatchewan to work for the Saskatoon Regional Health Authority. This past February, he was fined and reprimanded by the Saskatchewan College of Physicians and Surgeons after he pleaded guilty to a charge of unprofessional conduct.

The college said he didn't disclose that he was the subject of an investigation in Ontario when he applied for a licence to practise in the province.

Smith is now believed to be living in British Columbia.