Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Missing evidence turned up in pathologist's office

Dr. Charles Smith

Dr. Charles Smith

Updated: Mon Dec. 17 2007 16:02:49

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — A secretary who repeatedly tried to have discredited pathologist Dr. Charles Smith clean up his messy office and return phone messages was surprised to find missing evidence in the room just three days after searching it, a public inquiry heard Monday.

The 20 autopsy slides discovered by administrative co-ordinator Maxine Johnson in November 2004 were part of the evidence requested by lawyers representing William Mullins-Johnson, who spent a dozen years in jail after Smith's faulty pathology helped convict him in the death of his four-year-old niece.

Mullins-Johnson, of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was released from custody in September 2005 after evidence surfaced that Smith had misplaced tissue samples capable of showing the girl died of natural causes in 1993. Mullins-Johnson was acquitted of her murder in October.

Johnson said she found 20 of the missing slides on Nov. 29, 2004, during a second search of Smith's office in the pathology division of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, where she works.

Jim Cairns, Ontario's deputy chief coroner, made the urgent request to find the slides the previous week after Smith failed to provide them, Johnson testified. She and another secretary, Dorothy Zwolakowski, located "a few'' slides in Smith's office that Friday.

But when Johnson looked again the following Monday, she discovered 20 slides on a shelf in Smith's office -- the same spot she had checked three days prior, she said.

"Did you draw from that the inference that they had been placed in the position where you found them between the Friday and the Monday?'' said Philip Campbell, a lawyer who represents Mullins-Johnson and other families convicted of crimes in cases that involved Smith.

"Yes, I did,'' Johnson replied. "Because we did spend a lot of time and we did look everywhere for those.''

She said she spoke to Zwolakowski about finding the missing slides in a spot they had already searched.

"I told Dorothy that I thought it was kind of strange that we had looked,'' Johnson said. "I mean, we spent a lot of time looking.''

Additional evidence related to the case was found some months later in places that Johnson had already searched, she testified.

The inquiry also heard that Smith's office was often unkempt and littered with phone messages taken by frustrated clerical staff who answered numerous calls from police and other parties looking for Smith, once considered a leading Canadian expert in the field of forensic pediatric pathology.

A search of Smith's office in June 2005 unearthed a collection of bizarre objects, such as human bones and pieces of dried-out tissue, Johnson said.

She had a picture taken of Smith's office in 2001, hoping it would "motivate'' him to keep it tidy. But it didn't have the desired effect, she said.

The grainy picture appears to show numerous documents and other materials strewn all over Smith's desk. Johnson testified the photo was taken after she'd already been cleaning his office for an hour, as she did a number of times.

Smith's computer screen was often littered with phone messages taped to the monitor, Johnson said. When there was no room left, the secretaries would leave messages on his chair, knowing that when Smith sat down, he would be forced to look at them.

"The secretaries always seemed to, sort of, be blamed for him not getting his messages,'' she said.

"He would say, `Oh, I didn't get the message.' So we developed a system where if you put it on his computer, we always know that he's going to sit in his chair and turn around to his computer screen.''

Still, the secretaries liked working for Smith because he was easy to get along with, Johnson said.

"He's really a great guy,'' she told the inquiry.

"He's sociable and definitely not a difficult person to deal with.''

But the chronic delays in completing autopsy reports were often of Smith's own making, the inquiry heard.

His "love'' for typing his own autopsy reports was part of the reason authorities rarely received them on time, Johnson said.

"He liked to type them himself,'' she said. "He just didn't give them to us (secretaries).''

Dr. Don Perrin, who sat on a Hospital for Sick Children committee between 1995 and 2001 that kept track of outstanding autopsies, said Smith had more delayed reports than any other pathologist.

Perrin, who sat on the committee along with Smith and Dr. Laurence Becker, former chief of the hospital's pediatric laboratory medicine department, said he offered some ideas about helping Smith clear the backlog, but they fell on deaf ears.

"Dr. Smith didn't want me to help him,'' Perrin said. "He said he would catch up.''

The inquiry into pediatric forensic pathology in Ontario is investigating the deaths of 20 children which involved criminal proceedings where Smith was a forensic pathologist.

Led by Justice Stephen Goudge, the inquiry was prompted by a review of 45 cases Smith handled between 1991 and 2001. Twenty of those led to criminal proceedings.