A Tale of Two Forensic Scandals: Ontario vs. Mississippi


Jonathan Turley has the awful story of Sherry Sherret Robinson, a Canadian woman wrongly convicted in 1996 of killing her infant son due to the bogus testimony of a disgraced pathologist named Charles Smith. Robinson served a year in prison and was forced to give up custody of her other child.

Smith has since been exposed as a fraud. Robinson was finally exonerated this week by a court in Ontario. Her other son was given up to a foster family after her conviction, who has raised him for the last 13 years. She won't get him back. She has asked only that he be told the truth about her.

Read Robinson's blog here. Former Toronto Star reporter Harry Levy has been covering Charles Smith scandal on a blog devoted to Smith and other forensic nightmares.

Smith was a frequent witness in Canadian courts, commonly testifying for prosecutors in child death cases, where his testimony proved crucial in making homicides of deaths that could just as easily have been accidents. A disreputable pathologist can do incredible damage in these cases, since it's usually his testimony that makes or breaks the case. Because the question isn't who killed the child but whether the child was killed at all, there will never be DNA testing or new evidence to exonerate the suspect (of, for that matter, confirm his guilt). In U.S. courts at least, it's extremely difficult to get a new trial without new evidence. Simply noting that an expert you had the opportunity to cross examine has since been shown to have given questionable testimony in other cases usually isn't enough.

The big difference between the Charles Smith scandal and the Steven Hayne/Michael West forensic disaster I've been reporting on in Mississippi is that once questions arose about Smith's competence, Ontario's coroner launched an inquiry into Smith's practices. That led to a wider inquiry ordered by Ontario's government. The results of that inquiry are now being used to revisit cases where Smith's testimony may have led to a wrongful conviction, like Robinson's.

Mississippi state officials have ordered no such investigation. On the contrary, they've repeatedly insisted that any such inquiry isn't necessary, and there's no reason to question the prior work of the two doctors, despite their role in at least two wrongful convictions and the considerable and still accumulating evidence of their incompetence. The state did buckle to public pressure and finally fire Hayne last year, but as I reported earlier this year, now faces an effort by the state's coroners, assisted by Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, to bring him back. There are also two men currently on death row in Mississippi for murdering children in their care where, like Smith's, Hayne's testimony was critical to securing their convictions. In both cases, Hayne's trial testimony has since been questioned by more reputable pathologists. Mississippi's courts don't seem to care. They've rejected appeals and post-conviction petitions from both men.

The integrity of the criminal justice system isn't necessarily undermined by the fact that fraudulent experts and bad testimony occasionally creep into criminal trials. That's going to happen. But when the courts and government learn of these problems and not only do nothing to address them but actively engage in trying to cover them up, it's time to start questioning the legitimacy of the entire system.