Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Canadian pathologist linked to wrongful convictions in child deaths apologizes for mistakes

A Canadian pathologist whose expert testimony led to wrongful convictions for several people accused of killing small children, including one man who spent a decade in jail, said Monday that he was "truly sorry" for his mistakes.

A public inquiry into the work of Dr. Charles Smith pathologist, was read a statement in which he apologized for errors in analyzing 20 cases of child deaths. Twelve led to convictions, some of which have been thrown out by courts.

Smith did not appear as the government-appointed commission opened its inquiry, and his statement was read by his lawyer, Niels Ortved.

"Dr. Smith wishes to publicly acknowledge ... that in the 20 years that he performed autopsies at the direction of the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario, he made a number of mistakes for which he is truly sorry," Ortved said.

"In retrospect, he understands that in some 20 cases which form the basis of this inquiry, his work, while to the best of his ability at the time, was simply not good enough in certain circumstances."

Smith has not been charged with any crimes, and is not expected to testify before the inquiry until January. He stopped performing autopsies in 2001 after several cases in which he was involved fell apart amid questions about the quality of his work.

The commission has no authority to punish Smith or evaluate past convictions. It is reviewing Ontario's pediatric forensic system and will recommend changes in order to restore public confidence amid accusations that Smith repeatedly made errors that tore families apart.

Though Smith acknowledged he made mistakes, he claimed the errors were "made honestly and without any intention to harm or obstruct pediatric death investigations in which he was involved."

The probe was ordered by Ontario's provincial government seven months ago after an investigation of 45 child deaths involving autopsies or expert testimony from Smith found the pathologist made questionable findings in 20 cases dating back to 1991.

In one case, Smith's testimony played a key role in the conviction of a man who spent 12 years in jail for sexually assaulting and strangling his 4-year-old niece. Evidence later surfaced that showed the girl died of natural causes, and William Mullins-Johnson was exonerated last month.

Mullins-Johnson told television that Smith's actions destroyed his life and that he hoped the pathologist will face criminal conviction.

In another case, a mother was charged with murder after Smith testified at a pretrial
hearing that her daughter died of multiple stab wounds. A later autopsy found the girl was mauled by a pit bull. The mother, Louise Reynolds, spent two years in jail awaiting trial before she was exonerated.

Smith's testimony also led to the conviction of a mother who spent a year in prison for the 1996 death of her infant son. Sherry Sherrett is appealing her conviction for infanticideafter another pathologist determined the boy died of natural causes. After Sherrett was charged, the province put one of her other children up for adoption.

Just last week, Canada's Supreme Court ordered a new trial for a couple convicted in the death of their infant son because Smith's testimony was discredited by new evidence from two other doctors.

discredited dis·cred·it

tr.v. dis·cred·it·ed, dis·cred·it·ing, dis·cred·its
1. To damage in reputation; disgrace.

2. To cause to be doubted or distrusted.

3. To refuse to believe.