In Toronto the trail of human devastation left by a once respected forensic pathologist, wound its way yet again through Ontario’s top court last month, this time with the exoneration of a mother, who had been wrongly convicted of manslaughter. Her conviction was based on a doctor’s incompetence and egotistical approach to his job as coroner. Her conviction 25 years ago was the result of his screwy evidence testimony.
The court proceeding dismissed Maria Shepherd’s guilty finding, in the death of her 3-year-old stepdaughter in 1991. It came after the court recognized that Dr. Charles Smith had made numerous errors in the case.
“Charles Smith was like a god,” Shepherd said in explaining her plea. “Who am I? I’m just a little person.”
Smith was once Ontario’s highly regarded chief forensic pathologist. His opinions on the causes of death, considered unassailable, were frequently the underpinning of convictions that, like Shepherd’s, were ultimately found to have been absolutely wrong.
His stellar reputation, however, began unraveling 10 years ago, amid questions over the case of William Mullins-Johnson, convicted of sodomizing and suffocating his 4-year-old niece. Independent forensic experts would later conclude Smith was wrong to have implicated Mullins-Johnson, who spent 12 years in prison.
A review of his cases uncovered appalling screw-ups in nearly half of the autopsies Smith had done. 13 resulted in criminal charges that ought never have been brought to trial. The review prompted the Ontario government to call a public inquiry, which exposed a depressing history of Smith’s serious errors in assessing evidence, including his catastrophic misinterpretation of medical findings.
In one notorious case, Smith concluded a mother had stabbed her 7-year-old daughter to death. It turned out that had she not only never been stabbed by her mother, she hadn’t been stabbed at all, by anybody. She had been attacked by a dog and her injuries were bite marks.
In another case, Tammy Marquardt spent 14 years behind bars after she was wrongly convicted in 1995 of killing her two-year-old son, based on the doctors ridiculous interpretations of the physical evidence.
Judge Stephen Goudge concluded that an arrogant Smith had not merely “actively misled” the courts and his superiors – but that he routinely lied about details of his autopsy findings.
“He achieved the status of a leading expert in the field in large part because there was no one else who had the training, experience and expertise to show that he might be wrong,” Goudge said.
The inquiry also slammed Ontario’s former chief coroner James Young for failing to respond properly to a decade of complaints about the doctor.
“I don’t expect that you would forgive me,” Smith said at one point to Mullins-Johnson, who had wasted 12 years of her life in prison. “I do want to make it very clear to you that I am profoundly sorry for the role that I played.”
The Ontario government announced financial compensation for families affected by Smith’s mistakes.
Others, like Mullins-Johnson, won hefty lawsuit settlements.
So you see, bad doctors can inflict enormous damage to society, and they can do it in ways that have little or nothing to do with what we typically see as patient care.
Here’s another look: