Sunday, December 23, 2007

Smith and the Media: Part Eight: Damage Control and Sharon's Case;

Occasionally a public inquiry brings to light a hitherto secret government document which would otherwise never see the light of day.

The "housebook note" contained in the "Overview Report" of "Sharon's" case is a perfect example of such a document.

According to the overview report, it was prepared on January 23, 2001, by the Ministry of the Solicitor General on the subject, "Crown withdraws murder charges in the 1997 death of a 7-year-old Kingston girl."

Use of the anticipated headline tells me that the note has been prepared specifically in response to headlines expected to be generated by withdrawal of the murder charges that had been laid in the notorious case.

This appeared to me to be a classic exercise in damage control in anticipation of public outrage over the fact that a mother had been charged with murdering her daughter, held behind bars for several years, and had her other children seized by the State, because it's star pathologist, Dr. Charles Smith, could not distinguish between knife wounds and wounds inflicted by a Pit Bull.

I was particularly fascinated that the "housebook note" goes on to indicate that "the issue lead identified was Dr. Young," - referring to Dr. James Young, who at the time was both Assistant Deputy Solicitor General and Chief Coroner of Ontario.

Dr. Young acknowledged under questioning at the Goudge Inquiry, that the Chief Coroner (himself at the time) reports to the Assistant Deputy Solicitor General(also himself at the time);

However, he testified that there were administrative safeguards in place to prevent conflicts of interest.

(I will leave it to my dear readers to determine for themselves if this administrative arrangement is consistent with any notion of the independence of the Chief Coroner's Office from government);

A previous posting has noted that on January 24, 2001 - the day before the charges were withdrawn - the prosecutor faxed Dr. Young a draft version of his submissions to Court regarding the withdrawal of the charges - and that the prosecutor acceded to Dr. Young's request to delete two paragraphs from the submissions.

According to an article in the Kingston-Whig Standard on January 26, 2001, Young said the statement was altered - at his request - to remove statements which "incorrectly linked the decision to exhume Sharon's body in the summer of 1999 to the loss of casting of her skull." (Dr. Charles Smith had lost the castings of Sharon's skull which he had made during the autopsy;)

After identifying Dr. Young as the "issue lead," the "housebook note" goes on to lay out, "the response indicated to the question, "What is the status of of the coroner's investigation into the death of Sharon?" as follows:

0: I am aware of this case and the controversy surrounding it. The Crown has withdrawn the charges because of the limited prospect of conviction.

0: The office if the Chief Coroner became aware of the different theories regarding the cause of death and arranged an exhumation to gather further information. Defence experts were invited to participate. (As if Sharon's mother's defence lawyers did not have to move heaven and earth to get the police and prosecutors to admit that their pathological evidence was terribly flawed - and that Sharon had not been murdered. H.L.);

0: The Office of the Chief Coroner arranged for an additional expert to review evidence from the initial investigation and the exhumation in order to provide the Crown with further information upon which to reach a decision;

0: The Office of the Chief Coroner is reviewing the case to learn any possible lessons from it. (A review which never took place in spite of Dr. Young's public assurances that one would be held H.L);

0: It is inappropriate for me to comment on the opinions of experts retained by the Office of the Chief Coroner regarding a death investigation.

The "overview report" also indicates that the Solicitor General's ministry also identified Dr. Young as the "issue lead" on two "issue notes" relating to the status of the Coroner's investigation, "into the case of a withdrawn murder charges."

The good news is that ultimately the government's damage control failed - as years later another government would order an independent review of Dr. Charles Smith's work in Sharon's case, and many other cases;

This review would expose the failure of the Chief Coroner's Office to reign in Dr. Smith - in spite of the miscarriages of justice that were beginning to pile up because of his substandard performance.

The bad news is that by focusing on damage control - rather than on the need for transparency and the need to prevent future miscarriages of justice - the government of the day and the Chief Coroner's Office lost the opportunity to protect other vulnerable parents and caregivers like Sharon's mother, from being put through similar hellish experiences because of Dr. Smith.