December 19, 2007
In the 1990s Doctor Charles Smith was a leading expert in forensic pediatric pathology, until many of his findings were called into question. In reviewing his cases, his colleagues have described some of his conclusions as “ridiculous.”
In a SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) case Smith suspected the parents of criminal activity, but offered no explanation for his suspicions. Another pathologist, an expert in SIDS, the police, and other investigators found no evidence of foul play.
In another case, Doctor Smith suspected a mother had a mental disorder and was responsible for her child’s death. Another pathologist conducted an autopsy and found a fungal infection that had grown in the child’s airway, obstructed his breathing, leading to his death.
A number of individuals were convicted, at least partially, on the basis of Smith’s testimony. Among them is William Mullins-Johnson who spent 12 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
We don’t know why Smith reached some of the conclusions he did. He may have been under personal or job-related stress. He may have been overworked. In 2001 he even wrote to his superiors asking to be excused from performing postmortems. Whatever the reason for his job performance, rather than cast shame on Doctor Smith these incidents simply highlight that even “expert” testimony is not proof of guilt. Even so-called experts can–and do–make mistakes.
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