Wrongly convicted

An extraordinary real life drama is playing itself out in Ontario and Saskatchewan.

Pathologist Charles Smith conducted hundreds of autopsies, investigating suspicious deaths of children. He frequently testified in court as an expert witness.

We now know that Dr. Smith was the person primarily responsible for convicting a series of innocent people. Mothers, fathers, uncles, and babysitters were wrongly accused and often convicted of killing a child in their care.

The current story concerns a belated “not guilty” verdict in the case of Williams Mullins-Johnson. Dr. Smith found that Mullins-Johnson’s four-year-old niece had been sodomized and strangled to death in June 1993. The Globe and Mail fills in the tragic details:

At the time, Mr. Mullins-Johnson was living with his brother, Paul, and his sister-in-law, Kim, in their home on the [Indian] reserve near Sault Ste. Marie. The previous night, he had babysat their three children, giving Valin an affectionate hug as she settled into her bed for the night.

Weeping, Mr. Mullins-Johnson recounted his sister-in-law’s horror when she discovered the next morning that Valin was dead. He described his brother’s frantic efforts to roll Valin – her body rigid with rigor mortis – over onto her back so that he could administer CPR.

Within 11 hours, police had arrested Mr. Mullins-Johnson and carted him off for a nightmarish interrogation session. “They kept screaming at me that they had evidence that I did this and that,” Mr. Mullins-Johnson recalled. “With every accusation, I responded: ‘I didn’t do it.’”

His horrified extended family “closed ranks on me,” Mr. Mullins-Johnson testified. He said that since he, too, trusted the experts, he came to believe privately that his brother might have killed his daughter.

(The two men are estranged. Speaking to reporters Monday, Mr. Mullins-Johnson said: “I would tell Paul that nobody hurt your little girl. We have suffered enough. It is a point where we have to heal now.”)

CTV news reports that Mullins-Johnson eventually obtained the support of David Bayliss, a lawyer with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted. Bayliss says,

This was an alleged sex-homicide. There was no semen. There was no blood. There was no saliva, no hair, no biological material whatsoever connected Billy to Valin or the bed where she was found dead.

Experts have now re-examined the evidence and determined that Valin was neither sodomized nor strangled, contrary to Dr. Smith’s expert testimony. Mullins-Johnson was finally acquitted by the Ontario Court of Appeal yesterday, but he had spent 12 years in jail for the murder of his niece.

CTV briefly summarizes a second case: Louise Reynolds was wrongly accused of killing her seven-year-old daughter.

Dr. Smith concluded Sharon died a horrific death, stabbed more than 80 times, likely with a pair of scissors.

Two years later, another pathologist publicly challenged Smith’s findings:

Dr. James Ferris is an internationally-renown forensic pathologist. He concluded there was only one possible explanation for Sharon’s wounds. “They were absolutely classic of dog bite. In my view there was never any other reasonable opinion,” says Ferris, who had high profile involvement in the Australian dingo-baby case.

But Dr. Smith had already testified there “was absolutely no way in the world a dog could have caused that pattern of injury,” even though a pit bull living in the house was spotted with a red substance around its mouth on the day Sharon was found.

Reynolds spent 22 months in jail before the Crown dropped its case against her.

Wikipedia summarizes six more suspicious cases in which Dr. Smith played a pivotal role.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. nebcanuck
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 00:28:04

    Interestingly (eerily?) Shoshanna has some sort of connection to Dr. Smith, if I am not mistaken. Will have to check with her about the story, but I believe it was either their family as a whole (including her) who knew him, or he was a longtime friend of her mother’s whom she never met.

    I guess the news was pretty scary for them. It’s never fun to find out that someone you once thought of as pretty good (and stopping abusive parents certainly is a noble cause!) turns out to be at best a quack and at worst absolutely evil!

    Will comment again when I recover the full tale!

    Reply

  2. MaryP
    Oct 17, 2007 @ 13:45:19

    Were these diagnoses negligent – of an astounding degree? Were they wilfull – in which case, Ben is right and this would be absolutely evil. Either way, the man should be prosecuted: either his credential stripped from him or criminal prosecution.

    Bizarre, and frightening.

    Reply

  3. Stephen
    Oct 18, 2007 @ 10:19:27

    Frightening, indeed! To lose a child and then be accused of her murder and have an expert testify against you — it’s an unimaginable nightmare.

    According to CBC news, Dr. Smith “told media lampooning him he had ‘a thing against people who hurt children.’ …

    “Smith had been in search of his own personal truths. He was born in a Toronto Salvation Army hospital where he was put up for adoption three months later. After years of looking for his biological mother, he called her on her 65th birthday. But she refused to take his call.

    “Smith’s adoptive family moved often. His father’s job in the Canadian Forces took them throughout Canada and to Germany.”

    I guess we could give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was sincerely zealous to rescue children and bring criminals to justice. In addition to his personal background, presumably he saw some cases where caregivers were in fact guilty of crimes against children.

    Whether he could no longer look at the data objectively, or deliberately distorted the data to get convictions — who can say?

    CBC reports elsewhere that expert witnesses have immunity, but Louise Reynolds is fighting for the right to sue him.

    Reply

  4. nebcanuck
    Oct 24, 2007 @ 02:00:26

    So it took me a while to remember to ask Shanna about it, but it turns out that she actually knew him. He was a friend of her aunt’s and she spoke to him a few times, including most recently when he was involved in her aunt’s funeral. He drove the casket from Toronto to Kirkland Lake.

    Just thought I would put out there what a small world it is!

    Reply

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