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.”