The Province of Ontario has announced that it will grant compensation to those people charged or convicted based on evidence provided by former Coroner Dr. Charles Smith.
The Goudge Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario included testimony about Dr. Smith’s negative opinion of single mothers (around pp.126-132], (here too, around pp. 38-40) and indeed a significant number of the cases where compensation will be offered involve women
Prof. Emma Cunliffe, appointed to UBC’s Faculty of Law in 2008 and an award winning teacher, is an expert on these cases (she’s presented at the National Judicial Institute, and has a SSRHC grant to take this work further). I’m looking forward to her forthcoming book, since unless you’ve been lucky enough to hear her talk about it, she’s saved it all for the book! Make yourself a google alert, or watch for it here.
Emma Cunliffe, Making the Case? Murder, Medicine & Motherhood (Oxford: Hart Publishing , forthcoming 2011)
Emma generously sent me her comments:
“….15 of the 24 people wrongly accused of child homicide by Smith were women. All of those women who had surviving children lost custody in care proceedings, or surrendered them by consent to alternative caregivers. …..[W]hen a woman was the alleged protagonist, and SIDS an alternative cause of death, Smith tended to assert that the “true” cause of death was smothering or asphyxiation. Smith generally (with one notable exception – R. v. S.M.) only accused men of shaking; seemingly in accordance with his belief that men and women commit child homicides in identifiably different ways. He testified to this belief in some court cases.
In addition to the great number of women among Smith’s victims, those who were wrongly accused were disproportionately likely to be aboriginal or people of colour; poor; and otherwise marginalized. Even before they suffered the inconceivable horror of losing children and then facing wrongful accusations; many of these families were struggling to get by.
To me, Ontario’s compensation “offer” is not only insulting, it demonstrates that government institutions fail to respect and value the lives of those who are poor or marginalized. For the most part, Smith’s victims do not have the means to challenge the government offer, and no doubt they are exhausted after years of battling for any form of recognition of the injustice that has been done.”
There are really interesting parallels and contrasts between this situation and the cases involving Dr Sir Roy Meadows in the UK. Here’s a link to an article which provides most of the salient points. Again, mothers were convicted of killing their children, and Dr. Meadows testimony was critical to their convictions – and seriously flawed. But one of those women was a solicitor and another a pharmacist. All had multiple children die in infancy. And Dr. Meadows wasn’t a coroner.
Which leads us to some of the other issues floating around. Why didn’t Dr. Smith’s work raise serious questions much earlier than it did? Why did crown counsel keep calling him even after questions were raised? Why didn’t defence counsel manage to challenge him? These questions take us beyond Dr. Smith, beyond the coroners office, and into the ethics of prosecutors, the role of the investigating police, and the limited amount legal aid ontario will allow for expert witnesses in criminal trials – which usually mean that only local experts can be called. Maybe even to the incredible popularity of criminal/forensics television shows like CSI which encourage us to treat science as a kind of magic both infalliable and incomprehensible to mortals.