Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pathologist made dubious forensic calls: ex-coroner

Dr. Charles Smith

Dr. Charles Smith

Updated: Fri Nov. 30 2007 12:42:02

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — Forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Smith made bad findings, was chronically late issuing reports, misplaced evidence, and changed his opinions at the last minute, but Ontario's chief coroner took little action even though the problems were repeatedly brought to his attention, an inquiry heard Friday.

Smith's poor procedures and faulty opinions are blamed for several criminal prosecutions against people wrongly accused of killing babies or children between 1991 and 2001.

"I was aware of the general concerns but I can't recall specifics,'' Dr. James Young told commission lawyer Mark Sandler at one point.

"I just knew there were a lot of problems getting reports out of him.''

In one case, Smith decided a skull fracture was the result of abuse, where another expert later determined it was the result of the autopsy itself.

As a result, in early 1999, years after complaints about Smith first began surfacing, Young finally called the pathologist to a formal meeting.

"I discussed with him that I was concerned that his report had gone too far and that he had viewed abuse essentially where there was not good evidence that it existed,'' Young told Commissioner Stephen Goudge.

Young, who was chief coroner from 1990 to 2004, also said he impressed on Smith the need to be conservative in his findings, rather than be on "the leading edge'' of pathology.

"He didn't argue. He didn't debate with me.''

The office of the chief coroner soon issued a memo on the "pitfalls'' of pathology but Smith, who worked at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children where problems with him were well known, continued his pediatric forensic work for another two years.

Young, who helped lead Ontario's response to the SARS crisis in 2003 and to the huge blackout in August of that year, stressed he was not Smith's employer.

He insisted he "wasn't aware of the issues around the quality'' of Smith's pathology although he did speak informally to him on a few occasions in the 1990s about his tardiness.

Young also defended Smith in the case of a mother wrongfully accused of killing her child in 1997 based on his view of when the injuries occurred.

"I'm not suggesting that Dr. Smith's opinion is correct,'' said Young, who at times grew testy with Sandler.

"But he is not totally wrong.''

The woman's father, who spent his life savings to have his daughter exonerated, wrote a detailed complaint to Young in early 1999 outlining the numerous errors Smith had made.

Young's response was general in nature because, he said, "one letter leads to 50 other letters.''

"You have to put it in the context of what one person sees or interprets versus what another person sees or interprets,'' Young said.

"That's why we have experts and that's why we have differing points of view.''

The inquiry also heard about disagreements between Young and the body that regulates doctors in Ontario about who had jurisdiction in discipline cases involving pathologists.

At one point, the deputy registrar of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario wrote in a memo that Young "finds himself compelled to give the best appearance he can of trying to protect Crown pathologists.''

Young, who is now a special adviser to the federal deputy minister of public safety, said he wanted to ensure that pathologists, who were in short supply, would not be scared off from taking part in court cases because a judge might deem their findings to be wrong.

In one memo shown as evidence, a Crown prosecutor complained they looked like "fools'' because of the pathologist.