Canada

Discredited pathologist admits he was 'profoundly ignorant'

An Ontario pathologist whose expert opinions saw innocent parents accused of killing their children has apologized for the mistakes he made, and admitted his training was inadequate.

But Charles Smith says his work is being 'unfairly singled out' by reviewers

An Ontario pathologist whose expert opinions saw innocent parents jailed and accused of killing their children apologized Monday for the mistakes he made, and admitted his training was inadequate.

Charles Smith arrives for the beginning of his testimony at the Goudge inquiry into pediatric forensic pathology in Toronto on Monday. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

Charles Smith, in his first day of testimony before the public inquiry probing his work, said he now realizes he had little understanding of the criminal justice system or the role an expert witness, like a pathologist, can play in a trial.

"I thought I knew it but I realize now just how profoundly ignorant I was," he said at the Toronto hearing, as some of the parents and family members affected by his work looked on.

He said he used to think his role as an expert witness in a trial was to support the prosecution. He didn't realize it was his job to be impartial.

"In the very beginning, when I went to court on the few occasion in the 1980s, I honestly believed it was my role to support the Crown attorney," Smith told the inquiry.

"I was there to make a case look good. That's the way I felt."

He blamed his ignorance on the poor training available to him in the 1970s and 1980s. He said he was never able to find training courses in Canada and only attended one two-day seminar in the United States in the 1990s that focused on testifying in court. Much of his training, he did himself.

"It was self-taught, it was minimal, and retrospectively, I realize it was woefully inadequate," he said.

The inquiry, led by Justice Stephen Goudge, was called after a team of forensic experts reviewed Smith's work and found he made questionable conclusions of foul play in 20 child autopsies, 13 of which resulted in criminal convictions.

The review, with findings made public in April 2007, focused on 45 child autopsies Smith conducted between 1991 and 2002, when he was considered a leading expert on pediatric forensics at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

'I am sorry'

Before Smith's testimony began Monday, he told reporters that he was appearing at the hearing with the intention of taking full responsibility for his work. During the morning hearing, he apologized several times.

"I have come to appreciate the mistakes that I have made and I am sorry for them," he said. "I also recognize that at times my conduct was not professional."

He apologized directly to several of the people who were either wrongfully accused or convicted in cases he handled.

One man he mentioned was William Mullins-Johnson, who spent 12 years in jail following a conviction for murdering his young niece. Key evidence in the case lay buried on Smith's messy desk.

"I did give an opinion and I testified in the court and therefore I believe I contributed to a miscarriage of justice," Smith said of Mullins-Johnson's case.

But Mullins-Johnson, who was acquitted in October, told reporters outside the inquiry that he didn't put much stock in Smith's words.

"It doesn't make much difference to my life," the Sault Ste. Marie man said. "I knew I did nothing to my niece and deep down, at the time, they even knew. The damage is done."

'I was unfairly singled out'

In testimony Monday, Smith admitted he was late with autopsy reports and didn't always produce the tissue samples and evidence that were required of him. He conceded he's an untidy person who is not organized, and as a result, there were delays in his work.

"I'm sorry. I'm embarrassed by them. I'm sorry," he said.

Still, when he was asked to discuss the cases he examined one by one, Smith defended many of his findings as being consistent with medical knowledge of the time.

He said the experts who conducted the review of his work failed to take into account how the science of pathology has evolved since he performed his autopsies. The reviewers also had access to medical records and witness statements that he never saw.

He also lashed out at the review because it didn't probe the work of other pathologists, or even police.

"I was unfairly singled out," said Smith, who laid out his evidence in a 120-page document that he filed to the inquiry.

Admits to taking a 'black and white' approach 

Smith also insisted he never had an agenda to hunt down child abusers, and stressed that media reports suggesting as much are greatly exaggerated. He said there's evidence showing two-thirds of the autopsies he performed concluded that the children had died of natural causes.

Still, he noted that there was concern in the 1980s that child abuse was under-reported, under prosecuted and often missed by health professionals. Smith said as a result, there was an advocacy culture around the issue.

"It was almost wanting to educate, bring attention to this," he said.

He also conceded that he may have been too emotionally attached to some of his cases.

"Now that I think back on it, I would have opened the door on that possibility a crack," he said, noting that emotional attachment is a pitfall of pediatric forensics.

Smith said that in several cases he handled, he may have been too "adversarial" and have taken a "black and white" approach to presenting pathology evidence that was not so clear cut.

With files from the Canadian Press

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