November 17, 2007

Expert witness scandal rocks Canada

Louise Reynolds of Ontario was incarcerated for three years for stabbing her 7-year-old daughter more than 80 times with a pair of scissors. She served most of her prison time in solitary confinement to protect her from other prisoners and guards who wanted to kill her for her vicious crime. Her only visitor was the spirit of her dead daughter, who brought her ghostly comfort from the grave.

Then it turned out Reynolds had been telling the truth when she denied guilt. A pitbull had mauled her daughter to death.

William Mullins-Johnson spent more than 12 years in another Ontario prison for sodomizing and strangling to death his 4-year-old niece.

Then it turned out the little girl had died of natural causes, possibly from complications of a chronic stomach ailment.

The unifying factor identified in these and at least a dozen other wrongful convictions in Canada was the testimony of Dr. Charles Smith, one of Canada’s most renowned pediatric forensic pathologists. The revelations of Dr. Smith's erroneous findings in multiple high-profile cases has severely tarnished the image of the judiciary in the eyes of the Canadian public.

This week, Canada began a judicial inquiry into what went wrong. The hearings, expected to last several months, will examine not only the practice of pediatric forensic pathology but the broader issues of prosecutorial tunnel vision, overreliance on expert testimony, and public overconfidence in forensic science as a result of the "CSI Syndrome."

One commonality among many of the cases is the socioeconomic status of the accused, who included racial minorities, aboriginals, and single mothers, which likely stacked the deck against them.

The scandal follows a highly similar scandal in England over Sir Roy Meadows' testimony falsely accusing dozens of mothers of harming their children due to so-called Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy. Other scandals involving expert scientific testimony have erupted in the United States, including one that I've previously posted about involving forensic odontologist Michael West of Mississippi.

Overall, these scandals are driving home the fact that experts are not infallible.

"We give great deference to experts," said Bill Trudell, chairman of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers. "The [Canadian] inquiry will change that and start people thinking that these experts are human and can make mistakes."

The Toronto Star has all the latest on the hearing, including a detailed list of the cases and the known facts underlying them.

Photo: Pediatric forensic pathologist Charles Smith.