Former chief coroner apologizes at Goudge inquiry

Ontario's former chief coroner capped a gruelling three days of testimony by expressing regret at having failed to act on repeated complaints about Dr. Charles Smith.

Ontario's former chief coroner capped a gruelling three days of testimony at a public inquiry Tuesday by expressing regret at having failed to act on repeated complaints about Dr. Charles Smith, whose faulty pathology led to several wrongful prosecutions.

But Dr. James Young insisted he should not be judged by what now seems blindingly obvious.

"I think there's been an enormous use of the retroscope here," Young told commissioner Stephen Goudge.

"I'm not trying to blame everyone else. We made errors in the way we conducted things, but no one else was phoning us up saying, 'Boy, you're headed in the wrong directions, you're doing all the wrong things.'"

Throughout his testimony, Young made it clear he worried about the chilling effect that investigations into his star pathologist would have in terms of scaring others away from doing forensic work.

He fumbled frequently as he tried to explain his muted reaction to the complaints that surfaced over the course of a decade.

At one point, for example, he said he'd read thoroughly a detailed 1999 complaint from the father of a woman wrongfully investigated for killing her child.

At other points, he maintained that he hadn't read the portion of the letter that cited a ruling in which a judge delivered a scathing assessment of Smith's evidence in the abortive prosecution of a 12-year-old girl.

Young, who agreed he was "not a paper person," also said he never saw the attorney general's response to a 1999 request the father made to former premier Mike Harris and several cabinet ministers for a public inquiry, even though he was copied on it.

He only relieved Smith of his forensic duties in early 2001 because of the swirling controversy, not because of his record, which included the collapse of two criminal cases that were based on his findings.

Even so, Young sent a supportive letter to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in April 2002, which was drawn up by Smith's lawyers. Young said he didn't read it carefully before signing and sending it.

The inquiry is probing 20 child deaths involving criminal proceedings in which Smith was forensic pathologist.

Young has apologized for the suffering caused to the wrongfully accused and others impacted by the bad findings that occurred under his watch as top coroner, but said he was trying to build a world-class system, not micromanage his office.

Smith made threats over speeding ticket

The inquiry also heard Tuesday how Smith once tried to browbeat an Ontario police officerduring a traffic stop.

The incident occurred in November 2002 near Cobourg, Ont., after Smith — driving his Ford Explorer, with licence plate CORONR — was pulled over for speeding.

According to a complaint from the detachment commander, a belligerent Smith said to the officer: "Do you know who I am?"

He then told the officer that the next time Cobourg needed forensics done on a child, they wouldn't get it from his office.

The detachment commander's complaint was sent to Young, who was chief coroner from 1990 to 2004, who wrote back to say that Smith regretted leaving the impression he was threatening to withhold forensic services.

During cross-examination, Young — who in 1994 was appointed assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of the Solicitor General and Correctional Services — was accused of putting his own ambitions ahead of his responsibilities to properly oversee the death-investigation system.

Lawyer Julian Falconer, who represents several aboriginal groups, said Young's decision to accept the post was "born of a professional ambition and resulted in erosion of the accountability of the office of chief coroner."

Young said it was a government appointment, and that while technically he was reporting to himself, he was still accountable as chief coroner to the deputy minister.