“This case … is a reminder to forensic pathologists to avoid tunnel vision,” wrote Pollanen in the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology. “We need to be skeptical of the allure of common sense based on first impressions of the scene and body. Forensic pathologists must be unafraid to scientifically explore improbable, but true, alternative explanations.” His warnings would seem to embody a key part of Pollanen’s original mission in Ontario. Appointed a decade ago, the highly respected expert overhauled the province’s forensic-pathology system in the wake of the scandal around Charles Smith, the pathologist whose rush to blame caregivers for children’s deaths led to several miscarriages of justice. Smith sometimes cited foul play when accident had resulted in a child’s death. And yet, Pollanen himself was called to task recently for wearing blinders, with a judge saying he had been too dogmatic in justifying his opinion that a child’s injury was the result of violence, not mishap.... “A nice cautionary tale, to be sure,” Dr. Brian Peterson, president of the U.S. National Association of Medical Examiners, said by email. “One of our toughest challenges is to see beyond our initial case impressions — it’s not so much about keeping an open mind, but keeping an informed, questioning mind at all times.” Nathan Gorham, the lawyer whose case resulted in the recent judicial dressing down of Pollanen, said he’s still troubled by the impact of such experts’ work on criminal cases. He declined to comment on the Ontario doctor’s work specifically, but lamented that pathologists often voice strong opinions based on general medical literature that may not apply to the case at hand, and essentially usurp the jury’s role by factoring in non-medical, circumstantial evidence. “It’s difficult to overstate how important this evidence is when it bears on a truly contested issue in a trial,” said Gorham. “It gives a real, unfair advantage when you have someone who is cloaked in all of this expertise and a stellar reputation … who is essentially providing a thinly veiled argument.”

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