Maria Shepherd

Maria Shepherd

Mom exonerated in girl’s death after 25 years: ‘I forgive Charles Smith’

A mother once branded a baby killer left Ontario's top court Monday free of the manslaughter conviction that has haunted her for the past 25 years.

TORONTO — A mother once branded a baby killer left Ontario’s top court Monday free of the manslaughter conviction that has haunted her for the past 25 years.

Moments after the court acquitted her, Maria Shepherd said she forgave Dr. Charles Smith, the disgraced forensic pathologist whose evidence prompted her to plead guilty to killing her three-year-old stepdaughter in 1991.

“I’m not sure what was going on in Mr. Smith’s head. There must be something extremely troubling for somebody not to do it once or twice — we’re talking at least a dozen people that he has done this to,” Shepherd said as her husband and children looked on.

“I forgive Charles Smith, because it’s going to be less of a weight, and my family and I can carry on.”

The Appeal Court exonerated Shepherd, 46, of Brampton, Ont., after a short hearing at the urging of both Crown and defence.

Speaking for the court, Justice David Watt said Smith’s evidence had been the “linchpin” for the Crown’s case against her.

The justice system, he said, held out a “powerful inducement” for her to plead guilty given that she faced a possible lengthy prison sentence had she been convicted after a trial, Watt said.

“The appeal is allowed,” Watt said. “The plea of guilty and conviction is set aside and an acquittal entered.”

Shepherd pleaded guilty in 1992 to manslaughter in the death of Kasandra Shepherd based on evidence from Smith, who was then considered an unassailable forensics expert, and sentenced to two years less a day. She gave birth to her fourth child in prison.

Defence lawyer James Lockyer, with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, told the justices that other experts have now concluded Smith’s opinion was seriously flawed. Crown lawyer Howard Leibovich agreed, and urged Shepherd’s conviction be quashed in favour of an acquittal.

“This is a tragic case,” Leibovich said. “Kasandra deserved better. Her family deserved better. (Shepherd) deserved better.”

Smith’s autopsy on the girl was one of many suspicious child deaths he had handled. A review of his work and subsequent public inquiry uncovered numerous examples where he made serious mistakes, several leading to wrongful convictions. He was stripped of his medical licence in 2011.

Based on what was being discovered about Smith’s work, Shepherd was granted leave to appeal in 2009. Lockyer said it took this long for the exoneration because the case was forensically complicated and the system is stacked against overturning convictions.

“It’s very difficult to establish that someone has been wrongfully convicted,” Lockyer said. “The system doesn’t make it easy for you to do that. The system tends to fight you all the way.”

Court documents show Kasandra began vomiting and became unresponsive in April 1991 after a long period of ill health. She died two days after being admitted to hospital. Smith concluded she died from trauma due to at least one blow of “significant force” to the back of her head.

Shepherd, who was then 21, told police she had pushed the child once, with her wrist and watch hitting the girl on the head, but said she didn’t believe the blow could have killed the girl.

Her lawyer at the time consulted an outside expert who agreed Smith’s theory was reasonable, prompting Shepherd to plead guilty to manslaughter rather than risk conviction after a trial.

“Charles Smith was like a god. Who am I? I’m just a little person,” Shepherd said outside court. “He couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Forensic experts now believe Kasandra may have had a previous brain injury that caused seizures, or that she suddenly developed a seizure disorder that killed her. They have also concluded Smith’s damning testimony against her contained significant errors.

Shepherd, who has always maintained her innocence, said she was looking forward to rebuilding her damaged family life, something she said she never thought would happen.

“I’m finally acquitted and I’m free and I can be a mom to my kids without this hanging over me,” she said. “But this didn’t come without 25 years of a lot of quiet tears and anguish.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Erika Fetterly, owner of EFP Studios, recently launched the Let Them Have A Voice campaign. (Contributed photo)
Central Alberta photographer’s campaign aims to give youths a voice

An Innisfail photographer is giving a platform to young central Albertans so… Continue reading

Chopped Canada-winning chef Pete Sok is trying to focus on the future as he reopens Boulevard Restaurant and Lounge in the Holiday Inn on Gasoline Alley during the pandemic. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer’s celebrity chef looks past the pandemic with new restaurant opportunity

Pete Sok is reopening Boulevard Restaurant — and betting on the future

The Red Deer Rebels hosted the Medicine Hat Tigers in the first game of the shortened 2020-21 season on Friday. The two teams faced off again in Medicine Hat Saturday (Photo by Rob Wallator/ Red Deer Rebels)
Red Deer Rebels fall to Medicine Hat Tigers on Saturday

Tigers 7 Rebels 2 The Red Deer Rebels have lost two straight… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer reports 25th COVID-19 death

415 new cases identified provincially Saturday

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped save a missing pet recently. The two dogs have more than 80,000 followers on Twitter. (Contributed photo)
WATCH: Red Deer science dogs help save lost pet

Red Deer science-communicating dogs Bunsen and Beaker helped rescue a missing pet… Continue reading

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a news conference in Edmonton on Feb. 24, 2020. It’s budget day in the province, and Kenney’s United Conservative government is promising more help in the fight against COVID, but more red ink on the bottom line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta Premier slams vandalism after slur painted on MLA’s office window

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is condemning alleged vandalism at the… Continue reading

Canada Pension Plan Investment Board President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Machin waits to appear at the Standing Committee on Finance on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Tuesday, November 1, 2016. Executives who engage in so-called "vaccine tourism" show both an ethical disregard for those less fortunate and a surprising lack of business acumen, experts argue. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine tourism is both unethical and bad for business, experts say

Executives who engage in so-called “vaccine tourism” show both an ethical disregard… Continue reading

Edmonton Oilers' Jesse Puljujarvi (13) and Toronto Maple Leafs' Justin Holl (3) battle in front as goalie Jack Campbell (36) makes the save during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, February 27, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
No Matthews, no problem: Minus NHL goal leader, Maple Leafs blank Oilers 4-0

Leafs 4 Oilers 0 EDMONTON — The Maple Leafs knew even with… Continue reading

The Pornhub website is shown on a computer screen in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS
Pornhub policies reveal legal gaps and lack of enforcement around exploitive videos

OTTAWA — Serena Fleites was in seventh grade when a sexually explicit… Continue reading

Sean Hoskin stands on a neighbourhood street in Halifax on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Hoskin was diagnosed with COVID-19 almost a year ago with symptoms that still persist. Some provinces have established programs to deal with long-term sufferers but Atlantic Canada, with relatively low numbers of patients, has yet to provide a resource to assist them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
On East Coast, exhausted COVID-19 ‘long haulers’ hope specialized clinics will emerge

HALIFAX — On evenings when Sean Hoskin collapses into bed, heart pounding… Continue reading

Ottawa Senators goaltender Matt Murray (30) stands in his crease as Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88), left to right, defenceman Rasmus Andersson (4), Matthew Tkachuk (19), Mikael Backlund (11) and Mark Giordano (5) celebrate a goal during second period NHL action in Ottawa on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Calgary Flames beat Ottawa 6-3 to end Senators’ three-game win streak

Flames 6 Senators 3 OTTAWA — The Calgary Flames used a balanced… Continue reading

Crosses are displayed in memory of the elderly who died from COVID-19 at the Camilla Care Community facility during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mississauga, Ont., on November 19, 2020. The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection is likely to be much higher than recorded because of death certificates don't always list the virus as the cause of a fatality, experts say. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Death certificates don’t accurately reflect the toll of the pandemic, experts say

The number of people who would have died from a COVID-19 infection… Continue reading

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough to cover the average pinky nail but is made up of more than 280 components and requires at least three manufacturing plants to produce. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
From science to syringe: COVID-19 vaccines are miracles of science and supply chains

OTTAWA — A single dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine is barely enough… Continue reading

Most Read