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Death in the Family

by John Chipman

When the wheels of justice grind slowly, the process can seem interminable and destructive. This is especially true in cases where justice is being miscarried. By the time Tammy Marquardt had been exonerated in the death of her infant son, nearly 16 years had passed since her 1995 murder conviction. During that time, the Scarborough mother had been forced to put up two other children for adoption, had spent nearly 14 years in a prison where other inmates vilified her as a child killer, and had been driven to despair, drug dependency, and attempted suicide.

Death in the Family John ChipmanMarquardt was one of more than a dozen parents victimized by the incompetence of Dr. Charles Smith, who served for more than 20 years as the influential head of pediatric forensic pathology at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Ontario’s 2008 Goudge Inquiry reviewed 45 cases in which Smith had concluded that a child’s death was criminally suspicious. The inquiry found that Smith’s conclusions were unfounded in 20 of those cases. That adds up to a lot of disrupted, sometimes irrevocably damaged lives.

A painstakingly researched true-crime volume, John Chipman’s Death in the Family successfully puts human faces on those statistics. By focusing on the fate of four families Smith investigated, Chipman delivers a careful recreation of events that is both damning and affecting. The book is scrupulously detailed, relying heavily on primary-source evidence – including court transcripts and hospital records – as well as interviews with several of the principals involved.

The author, a former newspaper journalist who now works as a producer on CBC Radio’s The Current, doesn’t claim to comprehend the motivations behind Smith’s actions. But an unmistakable portrait emerges of the pathologist as an overzealous, imperious public figure whose arrogant self-assurance was not balanced by an equivalent measure of professional competence. In one case, Smith’s repeated failure to file a report in a timely manner results in charges being thrown out on Charter grounds. In that event, the parents in question were spared prosecution. But this apparently fortuitous result also left the shadow of a possibility that the couple had behaved criminally and got off on a technicality.  After all was said and done, it turned out that Smith wasn’t actually qualified to perform forensic pediatric autopsies in the first place.

Smith is far from the story’s only villain, even if his presumed authority caused a wider institutional breakdown. The police, whose interrogation techniques aim to extract confessions from harried and weary suspects, along with the court system’s emphasis on plea-bargaining and the Children’s Aid Society’s capacity for insensitivity, all contributed to prolonged, unnecessary suffering on the part of victimized families. Throughout the process, red flags signalling Smith’s dereliction of duty were ignored. Death in the Family is a cautionary reminder of the potential damage done by blind faith in institutional competence.