Ex-Chief Coroner Admits He Failed to Act
TORONTO Ontarios former chief coroner expressed remorse Thursday for his repeated failure to act on a judges scathing criticism of pediatric forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Smith, whose evidence led to several wrongful prosecutions involving the deaths of infants.
Testifying at a judicial inquiry, Dr. James Young admitted that he essentially blew off opportunities to take a serious look at criticism that came from a judge presiding over the case of a Grade 6 student who was charged with killing a baby.
None of them stuck with me, Dr. Young told the inquiry. I regret it deeply but I cant go back and change history.
In 1988, 16-month-old Amber, of Timmins, Ont., died while in the care of her 12-year-old babysitter, S.M., who maintained the child had fallen downstairs.
The death came at a time when still-controversial shaken baby syndrome was working its way into forensic consciousness, and Dr. Smith, who was deemed an expert, concluded that Amber died from brain injuries caused by severe shaking.
Nine other experts disagreed.
In acquitting S.M. in 1991, Justice Patrick Dunn tore a strip off Dr. Smith, who had worked with other pathologists at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto on the case.
Judge Dunn attacked Dr. Smith on 16 points, including his failure to consider any other possibilities for the cause of death, and for concluding that Amber had been shaken to death even before performing the autopsy.
Dr. Young said no one ever sent him the judges written ruling.
However, commission counsel Mark Sandler produced a complaint letter written in 1999 by the father of a woman accused of killing her son based on Dr. Smiths opinion.
The letter, which Dr. Young called astoundingly accurate, detailed Judge Dunns criticism of Dr. Smith in the Amber case.
I regret „ I regret deeply „ that I didnt read this, it didnt register, and it didnt signal something in me, Dr. Young said of the letter.
I dont think I read it.
Nevertheless, he wrote back to say he had given detailed consideration to the complaint.
Dr. Young also testified that the coroners office has no way of tracking cases that end up in court. You see a weakness there? Justice Stephen Goudge interjected.
Dr. Young responded that it would be a monumental feat for the coroners office, which has enough on its plate already, to track so many cases.
If were satisfied that the Crown seems happy and things are running along, were not paying attention, Dr. Young responded.
Were moving on to tomorrows problems.
William Mullins-Johnson, who spent a dozen years in jail for raping and suffocating his four-year-old niece based Dr. Smiths faulty pathology, was contemptuous of Dr. Youngs explanation.
Youre sent letters, youre sent complaints, youre sent judgments from courts, and nothing is triggering? Mr. Mullins-Johnson said.
You cant explain that away with, Oops, I just wasnt paying attention, or, Oops, it wasnt my responsibility. It was his responsibility.
While he did not elaborate, Dr. Young did say that Dr. Smith told him some time after the acquittal that the judge had expressed the view that had he known more about shaken baby syndrome, he would have convicted S.M., whose full name is covered by a publication ban.
Commission counsel indicated that Judge Dunn maintains he never expressed any such view.
Dr. Young also conceded he paid little attention to a CBC fifth estate documentary in November 1999 that raised the Baby Amber case along with Judge Dunns criticism of Dr. Smith, nor did he act on a Macleans magazine article in May 2001 that did the same.
It didnt sink in, thats all I know, Dr. Young said.