January 29, 2008

Meanwhile, shocking revelations by Canadian pathologist

Let's turn now from the Masters to a case of expert witness malfeasance that's been sending shockwaves through the criminal justice system up in Canada. Back in November, I blogged a couple of times about forensic pathologist Charles Smith, whose decades of expert testimony for the government compounded the misery of grieving parents by sending many to prison for the accidental deaths of their children.

This week, Dr. Smith took the stand in the ongoing judicial inquiry and made a couple of shocking revelations:

1. Biased for prosecution

Most shockingly, he admitted that, far from being the neutral scientist he portrayed himself to be, he actually was biased in favor of the prosecutors who hired him.

"I honestly believed it was my role to support the Crown attorney. I was there to make a case look good," he admitted in his first day of testimony before an ongoing judicial inquiry into what went wrong in the cases.

2. "Ignorant"

Second, he admitted that he was "profoundly ignorant" of the criminal justice system. In stating this, he apologized for the "mistakes" he made during some two decades of performing child autopsies in cases of suspicious death.

3. Trained others experts

Despite now admitting to bias and ignorance, back in the day Dr. Smith lectured other doctors on how to be an expert witness in court. In court today, he was shown a speech he delivered entitled, "See You in Court: The Invitation You Can't Refuse," in which he cautioned doctors never to be an advocate for one side or the other. How's that for hypocrisy.

Among those whose lives were torn apart by Smith’s "mistakes" are several mothers who spent years in jail until the cases against them fell apart, and a man who was finally exonerated after spending more than a decade in prison for the death of his niece.

One commonality among many of the cases was the socioeconomic status of the accused, who included racial minorities, aboriginals, and single mothers. Although the adversarial system is premised on an equal fight between the accused and the government, economically disadvantages defendants do not have the wherewithal to obtain their own experts to challenge the government's experts. This is especially dangerous when the expert – as in Smith’s case - appears neutral, well qualified, and scientific.

These multiple emerging scandals - which include the Colorado case of Tim Masters, the British case of Sir Roy Meadows (who falsely accusing dozens of mothers of so-called "Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy") and the Mississippi case of forensic odontologist Michael West - are driving home the fact that experts are not infallible and should not be accepted without skepticism.

More on the Smith hearings, including video coverage, is at the Toronto Star and the Charles Smith Blog. My prior posts on the case are here and here. My blog post on forensic odontologist Michael West (a bite-mark expert) is here.