John Chipman is a journalist, author, and documentarian. In 2007, while working at the CBC, he became interested in Charles Smith — Ontario's top pediatric forensic pathologist in the 1990s — and the families who'd been irreparably damaged by Smith's mistakes. Here, in the opening of his book Death in the Family, Chipman writes about what impelled him to look further into Smith's time in the Office of the Chief Coroner and the repercussions it had.
It was October 2007, and I was driving home from work. CBC’s World at Six was on the radio, and one of the top stories was about William Mullins-Johnson, who had spent more than 11 years in prison after being given a life sentence for molesting and murdering his four-year-old niece, Valin. Bill was one of the many victims of disgraced pediatric pathologist Charles Smith, and that cool autumn day he’d been back in court, where a panel of appeal judges had quashed his conviction and acquitted him of a crime that never occurred.
The story of Dr. Charles Smith’s incompetence and negligence had been building for almost eight years by then, and while I knew the broad strokes, I had yet to connect with it in a meaningful way. Once the top pediatric forensic pathologist in Ontario and arguably the country, Smith had used his arrogance and guile in court to mask his incompetence on the job, and at least 20 people were wrongly accused or convicted because of his mistakes. It was a huge story, but the scope of the misery Smith had helped create didn’t hit me until I heard that news report about Bill Mullins-Johnson.
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Bill Mullins (the name he goes by now) had been living at his brother Paul’s home in Sault Ste. Marie at the time of Valin’s death. He and his brother were close. Bill was babysitting the three children of Paul and his partner, Kim Lariviere, the night Valin died.
The autopsy was done by a local pathologist, Bhubendra Rasaiah, who determined that Valin had been strangled to death. She had extensive bruising, including marks around her neck. Her anus was enlarged. A local pediatrician, Patricia Zehr, said the child had been sexually abused — the worst abuse she had ever seen. Smith consulted on the case from Toronto, co-authoring a supplementary report stating the child was being sodomized at the time of her death.
Initially, Paul didn’t believe his brother was capable of something so horrific. He was a caring uncle, and the three children — six-year-old Jean, four-year-old Valin, and two-year-old John — adored him. But as the police, the Crown, and medical experts laid out their evidence at Bill’s trial, Paul’s faith started to waver. And when the jury said that word — guilty — Paul’s younger brother was dead to him.
But Bill knew that he was not responsible for Valin’s death. And he could think of only one other adult male who had been near Valin that night: his brother. Initially, Bill couldn’t believe it either; he was sure there must have been some mistake. But as the Crown built its case at trial, as medical expert after medical expert took the stand, his faith also started to waver. And by the time he was convicted, Bill was convinced he’d be doing time for a crime his brother had committed.
A deep, visceral hatred took hold of the two brothers, and it consumed them. Paul sank into drug and alcohol abuse. His relationship with Kim collapsed. She left him, taking their two surviving children with her. Bill continued to maintain his innocence, and the penal system held it against him. His appeal was denied. He considered suicide.
And then, more than 10 years into his sentence, Bill received a visit from David Bayliss, a lawyer with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (now Innocence Canada). Bayliss told him he was reinvestigating the case — he believed Bill was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. And he thought he might be able to prove it.
Convinced he already knew the answer, Bill asked Bayliss who he thought had killed Valin. Bayliss’s response could not have been more shocking. He did not think anyone had murdered Bill’s niece. He believed she had died of natural causes.
The bruising that Rasaiah had seen during the autopsy was the result of blood pooling after the child’s death. The signs of strangulation were caused during the autopsy itself. And indications of sexual abuse were part of the body’s natural post-mortem process. The child’s anus wasn’t enlarged because she’d been sodomized; it enlarged as the muscles around it relaxed after death.
New medical experts found no evidence of foul play.
The Ontario Court of Appeal set aside Bill’s first-degree murder conviction and entered an acquittal in its place.
“[The medical evidence] had my brother thinking that I killed his little girl. [And it] had me thinking that he killed his little girl because I knew I didn’t kill her,” Bill told the court at his appeal hearing in 2007.
The family would never know exactly why or how Valin had died.
The radio report included Bill’s statement at his appeal, and it hit me like a bag of bricks. His story was almost biblical: two brothers turned against each other, each convinced the other had committed an unspeakable crime, only to realize years later that the crime had never happened.
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Six weeks earlier, late in the summer of 2007, the courts had overturned another miscarriage of justice. It had taken a last-minute reprieve to save 14-year-old Steven Truscott from the gallows in 1959, when he was scheduled to hang for the murder of his classmate Lynne Harper. Truscott’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he spent a decade behind bars. His case became one of Canada’s most famous wrongful convictions, but almost 50 years went by before the Court of Appeal for Ontario finally overturned his conviction. That was big news, but it was the story that followed that stuck with me: the one about Lynne Harper’s family, who said they were still convinced Truscott was guilty.
Who could blame them? They’d spent half a century believing one thing. It would be hard for them to concede that all their blame and hatred had been misplaced. But the Harper family could turn away from the truth; they could believe whatever they wanted, and it wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t as if Truscott had been a part of their day-to-day lives.
Paul Johnson didn’t have that option. Bill was his brother; there would be no turning away from the injustice he’d suffered. The two brothers would have to accept that their family was victimized twice, and it would be up to them to rebuild their shattered relationship.
I was working as a documentary maker with the CBC at the time, and I spent a lot of time with Bill and Paul and their families that fall, researching and reporting their story. The miscarriage of justice and Bill’s lost years in prison were easy to appreciate, but the brothers’ anguish went deeper. While Bill’s wrongful conviction had rightly received most of the media attention, he was far from the only victim. Not only had Paul lost his daughter, but his faith and trust in his younger brother were stolen as well. That decade of hatred created an enormous chasm, but at least Paul had their shared history to help him rebuild their relationship. His children had nothing. Valin’s older sister, Jean, grew up believing her uncle Billy was the monster who killed Valin. She could not remember him as anything else. Believing her uncle guilty was essential; it was her only way of making sense of Valin’s death. It took her years even to consider another possibility.
Bill’s ordeal had begun with his niece’s sudden, unexplained death. But like all the cases involving Smith, that tragedy was only the beginning. Because of the accusations and investigations and trauma that quickly engulfed them, Bill and his family never had a chance to do the most important thing: grieve Valin’s death.
Of course, it took more than a single disgraced pathologist to cause this miscarriage of justice. For years Smith’s reputation had shielded him from criticism. But when it finally began to crumble, attention was diverted from everyone else involved in Bill’s case. No one other than Smith was ever reprimanded or disciplined. Rasaiah continued working at the same Sault Ste. Marie hospital. Zehr continued her practice as a pediatrician.
As I investigated Bill’s case, I kept thinking: this is only one story. Charles Smith and the system that enabled him were responsible for so many more. Whose stories were those?
In June 2005, the Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario ordered a review of all the criminally suspicious deaths and homicides that Smith helped investigate in the 1990s. In 1992, he had assumed his position as the inaugural chief pathologist at the newly created Ontario Pediatric Forensic Pathology Unit, at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, a position he held until he was suspended a decade later. The review examined 45 cases; it found problems with 20. Thirteen of those had involved convictions. Shortly after those findings were announced in April 2007, the Ontario Government called a public inquiry to examine Smith’s problematic cases and how systemic failures had contributed to the mistakes he made. (Smith worked as a pediatric pathologist for a decade before taking over the SickKids forensic unit. A subsequent review of that period of his career found another four problematic cases he’d worked on that ended with criminal convictions. Smith didn’t respond to my request to speak with him directly for this book.) The Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario is commonly called the Goudge Inquiry, after its chair, Justice Stephen Goudge.
Twenty cases are too many to examine properly in a single book. Most could carry a book on their own. But they break down into three distinct groups. The first are wrongful accusations: cases in which parents or caregivers were investigated but charges were withdrawn or never laid, or in which the accused was acquitted at trial — cases in which the justice system ostensibly worked. The second are wrongful plea deals, in which suspects facing murder charges felt their only option was to plead to a lesser charge even though they had done nothing wrong. And the third are wrongful convictions, like Bill Mullins-Johnson’s, in which the accused maintain their innocence and are sentenced to life in prison.
As I started researching this book, I wondered if anyone had got away with murder because Smith’s involvement — as his career came to a crashing end — ultimately undermined a legitimate prosecution. Were any cases unduly tarnished because Smith had presented evidence? After all, he didn’t get all his cases wrong. There was one such case, in which Smith’s personal and professional failings led to the exact thing he was trying so fervently to prevent: the people responsible for a child’s death getting away with it.
At least that’s what it looked like initially. But after a year of investigating the case, I’m no longer sure. Smith, along with world-class lawyers and pathologists, might have got that case wrong too. And in a cruel twist, the two parents at the centre of it — parents I initially thought got away with murder — may be the biggest victims of all, forever living under a cloud of suspicion they have no way of legally escaping.
From Death in the Family, by John Chipman. Published by Doubleday Canada. Copyright © John Chipman, 2017. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.