Court clears woman in infant daughter's death
Discredited pathologist Dr. Charles Smith sits on the stand as he waits to deliver testimony at the Goudge inquiry in Toronto Monday, Jan. 28. 2008. (Adrian Wyld / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
TORONTO - A woman who was wrongfully accused of killing her baby in a case involving discredited former Ontario pathologist Dr. Charles Smith is "relieved" to learn that all charges against her have been dropped, her lawyer said Thursday.
The woman, who can only be identified as C.M. due to a publication ban, said she pleaded guilty in 1994 to killing her child because she thought no one would believe her story over Smith.
Ontario's top court quashed her conviction in October and ordered a new trial. The Crown in an Ontario court withdrew the manslaughter charge on Thursday.
C.M. was not in court, but her lawyer, James Lockyer, reached her by phone soon after the case concluded.
"She said, 'Thank God,' and was obviously pleased and relieved," he said outside court.
C.M. was 21 years old and didn't know she was pregnant when she gave birth in the bathroom of her parents' home in 1992, according to court documents. The body was discovered in a toilet bowl.
It was a "horrific experience," Lockyer said.
C.M. maintained her baby boy was stillborn, but Smith concluded that the baby was born alive and died of asphyxiation after conducting an autopsy. C.M. was charged with second-degree murder and spent about a month in jail.
"It was a pretty dreadful scene, as you can imagine, and she was alone when she gave birth," Lockyer said.
"And then, 24 hours later, as you heard, she's sitting in a jail cell for the next four weeks. It's hard to imagine what she went through."
C.M. pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1994, saying it "seemed like the only thing to do" given Smith's stellar reputation at the time as a pediatric forensic pathologist.
Her lawyer had "difficulty" finding a pathologist who was willing to challenge Smith's findings, court heard. But they were able to convince the Crown to accept a guilty plea to the lesser charge and spare her a jail sentence.
C.M. fulfilled her 300 hours of community work and was on probation for three years, Lockyer said.
In an affidavit, C.M. said she pleaded guilty because "she felt she was a burden on her family; she was horrified of going back to jail; she was afraid of the consequences of a murder conviction; and she believed that Dr. Smith's opinion would be accepted over her story," according to court documents.
"Despite her guilty plea, the appellant has always maintained that she did not know she was pregnant, that her baby was stillborn and that she had not seen any signs of life in the baby."
C.M.'s case was among the 45 cases by Smith that were reviewed by Ontario's chief coroner in 2005. It was later determined that there was never any reliable pathological evidence to support Smith's conclusion that her baby died of asphyxia.
A judicial inquiry has since found Smith's work was responsible, in part, for several people being wrongfully convicted of killing children and sent to prison.
Attorney General Chris Bentley acknowledged there's still a long road ahead for those who are trying to clear their names, but the province is working to expedite the process.
"Our interest is just getting it right," he said.
Lockyer, who represented nine people at the inquiry who were wrongly convicted based on Smith's evidence, said C.M. is the third one whose case is finally finished.
It's not clear how long it will be before all of the cases wind their way through the courts, he said. It could take two or three years for some, and perhaps even longer for others.
"They're all moving along as fast as I think we can handle, yes" he said. "I mean, these things do take time."