On 29 March 2017, Innocence Ottawa hosted their 4th Annual General Meeting/Conference entitled: “Forensic Pathology and Wrongful Convictions: Testimonies from an Expert and an Exoneree. Dr Christopher Milroy, Forensic Pathologist and Maria Shepherd, a recent exoneree addressed the consequences of inadequate oversight of expert testimony in the criminal justice system. The problematic expert evidence and testimony of the former Dr. Charles Smith led to countless wrongful convictions; Dr. Milroy served on the panel that reviewed many of Smith’s errors, whereas Maria Shepherd was one of Smith’s victims.
Dr. Christopher Milroy, a Professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine, specializes in the field of forensic pathology and explained the evolution of the pediatric and forensic pathologists oversight process, their role in the criminal convictions and the faulty expert evidence of Charles Smith. During the 1990’s, Smith worked as a pathologist whose inadequate training led to many errors and misdiagnoses that in turn resulted in a number of wrongful convictions. A coroner’s review reopened Smith’s autopsies and discovered that “Twenty of forty-five cases were misdiagnosed. Thirteen of those cases resulted in criminal convictions.” As Dr. Milroy expressed “[Smith] didn’t understand basic pathology concepts and he practiced in isolation. [In the courtroom, however] he was an impressive witness and difficult to cross-examine.” Shortly after the Coroner’s Review, the Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario, lead by Justice Stephen Goudge concluded in 2008 that many of Smith’s findings were incorrect and void of medical accuracy. The many recommendations from the Goudge Inquiry have drastically changed the practice of pediatric forensic pathology in the province of Ontario.
Maria Shepherd was caught up in Smith’s errors and on October 1st, 1992, she plead guilty to manslaughter in the death of her three-year-old stepdaughter. In 2016, twenty-four years later, Maria was finally exonerated. Her wrongful conviction came about due to a number of factors, including faulty expert evidence, the effects of the Reid interrogation technique and a false confession. Maria shared her painful and difficult journey with the students present at the meeting; she had little choice but to enter a guilty plea if she wanted to see her other children grow up. Maria’s case illustrates the problems when expert testimony goes unchallenged and when experts act as a “hand of the prosecution.” The 4th Annual General Meeting/Conference of Innocence Ottawa allowed for a passionate discussion about how miscarriages of justice can result from an overreliance on faulty forensic testimony and the importance of future advocates in the criminal justice system to be vigilant to how such errors can occur.