Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Forensic pathology reforms already underway

Dr. Charles Smith

Dr. Charles Smith

Canadian Press

TORONTO — While the questionable forensics work of a former Ontario pediatric pathologist has captured headlines, raised the spectre of numerous wrongful convictions and forced a public inquiry, experts say much is being done to mitigate mistakes and improve standards in the grisly field.

Vancouver's Dr. John Butt - the lone Canadian on a panel of international experts that cast serious doubt on at least a dozen autopsies conducted by Dr. Charles Smith - said Canada is only now catching up to the likes of the United Kingdom and the United States when it comes to properly training those in the field.

"I have a qualification in forensic pathology because they had an examination when I took my qualifications (in Great Britain) in the 1970s, but that hasn't come along in Canada very quickly," Butt said.

"I think one of the reasons for it was that there were not that many people who were practising, but there were certainly people lobbying for it back in the 1980s - and certainly in the early 1990s."

According to this country's Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, forensic pathology was added as a subspecialty to a list of 62 recognized medical disciplines in 2003.

CEO Andrew Padmos said the college is in the process of finalizing educational standards and expects some 17 Canadian medical schools will apply to offer a one-year forensic pathology program as early as July 2008.

Still, Butt notes there are great inconsistencies between provinces and suggests a set of national standards and oversight is imperative.

On April 19, Dr. Barry McLellan, Ontario's chief coroner, revealed that a panel of experts took issue with Smith's work in 20 of 45 child death cases dating back to 1991 - 12 of which resulted in criminal convictions and one in a finding of not criminally responsible.

Overshadowed in the myriad of shocking stories of possible wrongful convictions that followed was a variety of "lessons learned" by the coroner's office, which is charged with investigating some 7,000 sudden or unexpected deaths of children and adults every year.

In his report, McLellan noted that all deaths involving children under the age of five are now subject to a review by a committee to ensure consistency. Complex cases, including ones in which the Children's Aid Society is involved, receive particular scrutiny.

Guidelines for dealing with criminally suspicious and homicide cases have also been updated to the extent that 11 of the Smith cases reviewed appear to have been completed with less information than what is currently required, McLellan noted.

However, McLellan said the "deficiencies" identified likely didn't impact on Smith's conclusions in those cases.

"Regardless, there is need for better communication between coroners and pathologists," McLellan wrote in his report, noting that telephone, or in person, contact between coroners and pathologists will soon be policy for all criminally suspicious cases of deaths of children under five years old.

Elisabeth Widner, co-president of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, says she hopes the public inquiry into Smith's work will recommend, among other things, the need for a "team approach" to conducting autopsies and a review process.

The close relationship between scientific experts and the police is a systemic problem which needs to be addressed, Widner added.

"Many times experts are able to maintain their independence and do their work very appropriately," she said.

"But we have to wonder if there isn't any tunnel vision that might arise out of this close relationship between the so-called scientific experts, who are supposed to be somewhat impartial, and the police that actually investigate a case."

Still unsatisfied with the public inquiry's terms of reference announced Wednesday, Widner said her group will continue pushing Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant to broaden the scope to include individual cases.

The group was dismayed when Bryant failed to immediately call an inquiry into Smith's work after the expert panel's findings where made public on April 19.

The following day, Premier Dalton McGuinty vowed that an inquiry would be held and within days Bryant took action on a number of cases.

Sherry Sherrett, a Trenton, Ont., woman who spent a year in jail after she was convicted, in part on Smith's evidence, of killing her four-month-old son was granted permission to take her case to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The Crown also agreed to support a bail application for Marco Trotta who was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1998 death of his infant son.

On Friday, Bryant announced that the case of William Mullins-Johnson likely was a miscarriage of justice and that he should be acquitted.

The Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., man spent 12 years in prison for sexually assaulting and murdering his four-year-old niece and was released after evidence surfaced suggesting she died of natural causes.

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