A Tale of Two Forensic Scandals: Ontario vs. Mississippi

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

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.

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19 Responses to “A Tale of Two Forensic Scandals: Ontario vs. Mississippi”

  1. #1 |  Nando | 

    I’m guessing the reason that MS doesn’t want to revisit the cases where fraudulent expert witness might’ve been presented boils down to one thing: money.

    States get money for prisoners, do they not? Prisons have become a boom and a way for state and local governments to create recession-proof jobs. Also, I think that some people falsely believe that the more prisoners there are, the better job the state is doing to “protect” them.

    It’s a sad reality, but I doubt any state will be gunning to release any falsely convicted people anytime soon.

  2. #2 |  Marty | 

    I can understand how a person can be blinded by idealogy or propaganda, but I can’t fathom how someone can stand in court and use their power to needlessly wreck someone’s life.

    a short prison sentence is not enough.

  3. #3 |  Sky | 

    As of November 12, 2009 Dr. Hayne was still being paid by Lowndes County Mississippi. They are paying him to testify on autopsies he performed prior to Aug. 4, 2008 when he was removed from the state pathologist list so, he still has the ability to do allot of damage.

  4. #4 |  Salvo | 

    USA! USA! USA!

  5. #5 |  Foobs | 

    Marty:

    You assume that people consider facts and then reach conclusions. Most people do not think that way at all; they decide what they believe and then either sift or create the facts to reach that conclusion. Hayne knew that the answer, so he made sure his process was correct (that it reached the right answer).

    People want to believe that the criminal justice system can be trusted. It is very important that they be able to believe that the innocent are protected and the guilty punished, so they do believe it. They’ll fight tooth and nail against any attempt to demonstrate failures or inadequacies of the system.

  6. #6 |  Dave Krueger | 

    I think Mississippi’s resistance to doing anything about Hayne is because their phobia of outside meddling completely trumps their any wish to fix their corrupt criminal justice system. It’s the “You ain’t gonna tell us how to run our state” syndrome.

    Sure, a lot of innocent people suffer, but it’s not like the concept of collateral damage as a cost of civilization is unique to Mississippi. Government exists for the sole purpose of serving government, whether it’s Mississippi or Washington DC. Government is cancer.

  7. #7 |  Tsu Dho Nihm | 

    Government exists for the sole purpose of serving government, whether it’s Mississippi or Washington DC. Government is cancer.

    Can I get that on a t-shirt and/or bumper sticker?

  8. #8 |  BamBam | 

    I can’t fathom how someone can stand in court and use their power to needlessly wreck someone’s life.

    You can’t understand it because it’s called EVIL and you don’t possess enough of it to understand it.

    Always follow the money if you want an answer to your questions. The end result may not be all about money — sometimes it’s about power and control, with money being incidental — but money will almost ALWAYS lead you to the truth (or as close to it as you will ever get).

  9. #9 |  Judi | 

    PLEASE sign my petition telling the state of Mississippi that these ergregious injustices by Hayne and West will NOT be tolerated and MUST be addressed:

    http://www.gopetition.com/online/25939.html

  10. #10 |  Judi | 

    Oops! EGREGIOUS

  11. #11 |  Nando | 

    Here’s a question, can’t a defense atty just bring up his history and bring his credibility into question? Every time the state uses Hayne they would put themselves at risk of having his “expertise” questioned, no?

  12. #12 |  Judi | 

    Nando, it’s about money alright. But consider this as well. Once the state admits they erred in letting Hayne and/or West do these autopsies and that these men were unqualified then that in itself is going to rattle the purse strings in Mississippi.

    They will HAVE to re-open the cases in which Hayne/West testimony was crucial to the conviction. They also know there will be a lot of cases that will be overturned and exonerations. AND the wrongfully convicted will sue the bejesus out of them.

    So in essence, they are trying not to shoot themselves in the foot.

    Well guess what! OOPS!! They already have.

  13. #13 |  BamBam | 

    And it’s evil to be more concerned with money (stolen from others via taxes) to pay for the abhorrent behavior of your (The State’s) thugs, than it is to be concerned about truth, justice, liberty, etc.

    Private justice is the best way to handle these evil creatures.

  14. #14 |  hexag1 | 

    “more reputable pathologists” ???
    Don’t you mean actual pathologists ?

  15. #15 |  Aresen | 

    | hexag1 | December 9th, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    “more reputable pathologists” ???
    Don’t you mean actual pathologists ?

    I suppose you might refer to Charles Smith and Steven Haynes as ‘sociopathologists’.

  16. #16 |  Andrew Williams | 

    When Stephen Hayne goes to Boot Hill, he’d better pray one of his few remaining friends does the autopsy….

  17. #17 |  Frank | 

    #11 And the lawyer in question is risking a contempt citation when he does.

  18. #18 |  jmc | 

    I think Judy has nailed it.

    There’s a hugely perverse incentive in keeping things “settled”. For one, the more people you let out of prison, the more people you’re going to have to pay off in a civil suit later. More money paid out to “criminals” or even “former criminals” or if we’re lucky, “innocent people who got locked up” means less votes.

    Plus, there’s also the fact that the prosecutor and judge have to admit they screwed up royally. When you release someone after serving many years in prison because they were innocent, not only to have to say, “we got the wrong guy”, you have to admit that for however many years, someone didn’t pay for the crime they committed — and now, the trail has likely gone cold and the case will never be solved. All because you couldn’t be bothered to do the right thing the first time. That certainly won’t get votes. Better to just say, “we know we got our man here, even if that expert witness was a fraud.”

    Don’t forget, there are plenty of idiots out there who think that criminals “get off” too often and there are too many appeals for people who are “obviously guilty”.

  19. #19 |  pam | 

    The 15 year old boy I’m supporting just lost his bid for a new trial after 11 months waiting on District Judge Gardner who found a narrow way around Hayne being the only expert at the 2 day trial who got the conviction and life sentence for the boy:

    He said that in the “Edmonds v. State case Dr. Hayne didn’t testify that he could tell from looking at a body that there had been two people holding the gun…” as was asserted in this boy’s PCR motion and brief. “Dr. Hayne never testified to any such thing. He answered an improper question posed by the prosecutor to the effect that the circumstances at the time of the shooting as described in Edmond’s statement and other physical findings known to Hayne were consistent” and then he went on to say that the Supreme Court went on to observe, “Dr. Hayne is qualified to offer expert opinions in forensic pathology”.

    Thanks MS Supreme Court.

    Also, quoted from the opinion: “Finally, as to Dr. Hayne’s testimony, this Court has no basis to consider that the testimony of Dr. Hayne “casts a coubt over the entire proceedings” as asserted by the Petitioner. It is the opinion of this Court that anyone with medical training of any degree could form a valid opinion as to the cause of death where the victim’s body had been punctured by a knife or knives some 20 times.” (there were a total of 7 wounds, 6 less than 1/8th inch deep and one fatal in a claim of self defense by the 8th grader against his much bigger attacker who was suffering from mental degeneration of which Dr. Hayne never sampled or tested brain tissue in his autopsy).
    The judge couldn’t even get the main facts of the case right in his opinion.

    Thanks State of Mississippi.

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