Author John Chipman first knew he had to write about the case of disgraced pathologist Charles Smith 10 years ago.
He had been listening to a radio report about one of the 17 people that Smith’s incompetent and intentionally misleading autopsies had helped wrongfully convict during his decade as chief pathologist at the Ontario Pediatric Forensic Pathology Unit.
That person, Bill Mullins-Johnson, spent 11 years in prison after being charged with the murder of his four-year-old niece, Valin. Bill knew he had not done it, and assumed the killer was his brother, Paul. Paul believed Bill did it. The brothers spent over a decade hating one another.
But neither had killed Valin. It was never uncovered how or why Valin died, but no foul play was involved. The Mullins-Johnsons were just more victims of an autopsy botched by Smith.
“It was almost a biblical story about these brothers,” Chipman said. “Then you look at the scope of how many families were involved and how many people were affected and how far the ripples go. I mean, that’s what really intrigued me.”
He spent the next four years writing Death in the Family. Chipman, himself a journalist and documentary-maker with CBC, was interviewed April 6 by journalism students at Centennial College’s East York campus about the experience of researching and writing the book.
Chipman chose four of the 17 botched cases to explore in depth in his book. Those were the ones he felt “spoke to the issues that all of them did.” He started reaching out for interviews soon after.
“These stories are about people who were forced to be voiceless, and so I was really cognizant of making sure that they were front and centre,” he said. “I started with their stories, and then I supported it with (documentation).”
Two of the stories were about wrongful accusations, one of which resulted in a conviction, in cases of natural deaths that Smith had imagined to be murders. Another was actually a murder, but Smith’s incorrect estimates of time of injury led to a wrongful conviction. That was later rectified when the actual murderer confessed to an undercover police officer.
But it was the last case that was particularly important to Chipman.
All evidence pointed to murder, and several competent pathologists from around the world have confirmed this. But Smith’s autopsy had so thoroughly bungled the investigation that no one was ever charged.
“Once (Smith) became a persona non grata, did his sullied reputation allow someone who did hurt their children (or) kill their children to slip through the cracks on a technicality?”
Chipman may never know.
Death in the Family also explores greater themes of wrongful plea cases, wrongful accusations, false confessions and the adoption system in Ontario. Chipman delves into interactions between law enforcement and the justice system in Ontario that allowed Smith to continue working 15 years after he first started receiving complaints.
“You need some systems in place, you need oversight, you need effective oversight, you need accountability. Those type of things to protect against the natural fallibility of people,” he said. “A system is only as good as the people who are in it.”