Thursday, January 31, 2008

Canadian pathologist linked to wrongful convictions in child deaths admits inadequate training

TORONTO (AP) - 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 his training in forensic pathology was woefully inadequate.

Dr. Charles Smith, once considered the country's leading pediatric pathologist, opened his first day of testimony at the public inquiry into his work with an admission that his lack of training in the field contributed to «mistakes» made during some two decades of performing child autopsies in cases of suspicious death.

(My training) was self-taught, it was minimal, and retrospectively I realize it was woefully inadequate,» said Smith in quiet, measured tones.

The probe was ordered by Ontario's provincial government nine 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. Of those 20 cases, 12 led to convictions, some of which have since been thrown out by courts.

Despite providing expert testimony in numerous criminal cases, Smith said he now realizes he was «profoundly ignorant» of the criminal justice system in which he worked and of the role played by expert witnesses.

Sherry Sherret, who was convicted of infanticide in 1999 for killing her four-month-old son, largely on the strength of Smith's conclusions, said she has a lot of questions for Smith.

I would want to ask him face-to-face, off the record _ why did he do it? How does he feel? And does he regret anything that he did,» she said prior to the start of the inquiry, led by Justice Stephen Goudge.«He's turned so many people's lives upside down, so it's time for him to answer,» she said.

Sherret spent a year behind bars for the death before she was freed on bail. Subsequent investigation led two other pathologists to contradict Smith's original findings, determining that the boy died of natural causes. After Sherrett was charged, the province put one of her other children up for adoption.In Smith's opening statement, he said, «I do accept full responsibility for my work, for my opinions and for my action.«I do recognize that many people have questions for me and I will answer and provide testimony as best I can to help clarify these questions.

As Smith's lawyer took him case-by-case through his questionable conclusions, the disgraced pathologist admitted his errors while, in many cases, defending those findings as being consistent with medical knowledge at the time.

Smith said that the review has led him to «appreciate mistakes that I made and I am sorry for them. I do recognize that at times, my conduct was not professional, and I deeply regret that.

Smith stopped performing autopsies in 2001 after several cases in which he was involved fell apart amid questions about the quality of his work. He has not been charged with any crimes. The commission has no authority to punish Smith or evaluate past convictions, but will recommend changes in order to restore public confidence amid accusations that Smith repeatedly made errors that tore families apart.

Peter Wardle, a lawyer at the inquiry, said parents and relatives affected by Smith's mistakes will be looking for more than just another apology.Among those whose lives were torn apart by those mistakes include a man who was convicted and 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 in October.

Smith's testimony is expected to last the week.

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