Saturday, October 23, 2010


PUBLISHER'S NOTE: In view of the $4.25 million compensation William Mullins-Johnson that was announced on October 21, 2010 by the Ontario government, I am re-running some early posts relating to the case. The following post - published on October 8, 2007, ran under the heading, "Famed forensic pathologist admits he erred."


The factum filed by William Mullins-Johnson's lawyers for the October 15 reference from federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson reveals that Dr. Rex Ferris, a world famous forensic pathologist, disavowed his opinion for the defence that Valin Johnson had been chronically sexually assaulted after the application for ministerial review was launched in September, 2005.

Ferris's unequivocal repudiation of his earlier opinion - after Drs. Michael Pollanen and Bernard Knight retested forensic samples and determined Valin had not in any way been sexually assaulted - caused Mullins-Johnson's lawyers to comment, "Dr. Ferris’s volte face must be all but unprecedented and he deserves a great deal of credit for being so candid in his mea culpa over his previous opinion."

The fact that a forensic pathologist can make such major errors illustrates the vagaries and frailties of forensic pathology and the reason why the evidence of all forensic pathologists must be treated so carefully -regardless of their stature.

The fact that Dr. Ferris readily repudiated his previous opinion in the face of the newly acquired forensic information is an example of his integrity and professionalism.

The factum indicates that Dr. Ferris's evidence was damaging to Mullins-Johnson because, "he believed that Valin had been sexually abused in her lifetime, that she had likely suffered an asphyxial related death and suggested that she likely died as a result of a “minimal” form of neck compression."

"In October, 2005, Dr. Ferris was asked to review the case again, and his opinions on it. He came to Toronto in November, 2005, met with Dr. Pollanen, and reviewed the microscopic slides from the case," the factum continues. "In his subsequent report of January 12, 2006, he was blunt in his assessment of his own work in 1994.

He began by saying:
I welcome this opportunity to review and clarify some of the opinions given by me at the time of the trial of William Mullins-Johnson.

There is no doubt that at that time, my opinions were unduly influenced by the apparent authoritative opinions given by Drs. Smith and Mian who strongly supported the observations and opinions of Dr. Zehr.

I was concerned at that time with the opinions expressed by Dr. Smith in the Mullins-Johnson case and since that time I have found myself disagreeing with his forensic pathology opinions expressed in several cases and this experience including his work on the Louise Reynolds case has made me extremely cautious about the quality of his forensic pathology work.

I am now aware that Dr. Smith’s professionalism has been questioned by others, and I was clearly in error to accept so readily his opinions in the Mullins-Johnson case. Similarly, in retrospect I was wrong to have accepted Mr. O’Hara’s assumption that Valin Johnson had been the victim of sexual abuse and murder.

Dr. Ferris noted that his previous conclusions had been predicated on his belief that an area of hemorrhage adjacent to the thyroid gland and petechial haemorrhages on Valin’s face were either all, or partly, pre-mortem haemorrhages, indicative of neck compression.

He now rejected this proposition, and concluded that they were more likely post-mortem changes.

He wrote: Since it is now reasonable to completely exclude the two pathological foundations for my tentative cause of death as ‘vagal inhibition due to neck compression’, there is no reasonable alternative than to conclude that no definitive cause for death can be established.

This means that there is no evidence that Valin Johnson was a victim of homicide. (original emphasis) .

Dr. Ferris also discounted his previous opinion that Valin had been sexually assaulted:

Having now had an opportunity to examine photographs taken of the genital and perineal areas of Valin Johnson, I find that I must agree with Dr Pollanen and Professor Knight that there was no evidence of sexual abuse and that the features described by Drs. Zehr, Mian and Smith all fall within normal limits and cannot be interpreted as evidence of sexual abuse. ..

Dr. Ferris then presented his conclusions:

Having reviewed all of the evidence and materials referred to above, it is clear that my opinions were unduly influenced by my instructions from Mr. O’Hara and my ready acceptance of the opinions of Drs. (Patricia) Zehr, (Marcellina Mian) and Smith.

It is now clear to me that these influences reduced the level of objectivity of my opinions that would normally be expected from a Forensic Pathologist of my experience.

Further, when I was attempting to clarify and explain the limitations of such evidence, my difficulties and caution in reaching my conclusions as expressed in court were interpreted at the trial as inconsistency and contradiction.

It is now my opinion that there is no reasonable evidential foundation on which to determine the cause of Valin Johnson’s death.

It is now my opinion that there is no reasonable evidential foundation on which to conclude that Valin Johnson had been the victim of either chronic or recent sexual abuse.

It is now my opinion that there is no reasonable evidential foundation on which to base the time of Valin Johnson’s death. (original emphasis) ;

It is a compelling testament to the power of the forensic pathologists testimony that even Mullins-Johnson's trial lawyer bought into the conclusion that Valin Johnson had been the victim of a chronic sexual assault.

According to the factum, "The evidence of chronic sexual abuse, Dr. Jaffe notwithstanding, convinced defence counsel of its validity.

Thus, in his closing address, he told the jury:

There’s some special people that I think you owe a duty to in this case and that’s the children.

There was a child badly abused in this case, not as part of the charge but I believe that she was badly abused...

Defence counsel did however challenge Dr. Smith’s claim that there was a fissure in Valin’s anal canal which had occurred at or shortly before her death...
. As has been seen, the trial judge took the same position in his charge that Valin was undoubtedly a victim of longstanding sexual abuse, both anal and vaginal.

It seems likely that the jury, having found that Valin had been a victim of repeated sexual abuse, would conclude that her abuser was also her killer... "

Harold Levy;