For 25 years, Maria Shepherd has been known as a baby killer. On Monday morning, she finally walked free of the label after a judge overturned her conviction in a Toronto courthouse.
Shepherd pleaded guilty in 1992 to manslaughter in the death of her three-year-old stepdaughter Kasandra because she believed her chance of acquittal was slim in the face of testimony from Charles Smith — a now-disgraced forensic pathologist, who was, at that point, one of the most respected in the profession.
She was exonerated on Monday, as the court found that the three-year-old was likely not the victim of assault, as Smith had concluded.
Kasandra's is one of 20 autopsies in which Smith was found to have made errors — 13 of which led to criminal charges against the parents or caregivers. Nine convictions have been overturned since questions first started being raised about his work a decade ago.
In 1993, William Mullins-Johnson was convicted, and spent 12 years in prison, for sodomizing and suffocating his four-year-old niece as a result of the pathologist's testimony. Independent experts later found that Smith was wrong to implicate Mullins-Johnson. In fact, she died of natural causes and there was no evidence of sexual assault. They further found that Smith had lost evidence that could've been used as proof of that. He was released in 2005.
It was Mullins-Johnson's wrongful conviction that sparked the scrutiny into Smith's work.
"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 about a dozen people, at least, that he has done this to."
More recently, Louise Reynolds spent two years in jail after Smith found that 80 wounds inflicted on her seven-year-old daughter's body were caused by a knife or scissors — not the pit bull living in their home. The second-degree murder charge was dropped in 2001 after later examinations, which would show the injuries were dog bites.
The 2007 Inquiry into Pediatric Pathology in Ontario, launched after Smith was found to have made egregious errors in 20 of 45 autopsies conducted over 10 years, revealed a troubling pattern of him misinterpreting findings.
It was discovered that Smith's training as a forensic pathologist was "woefully inadequate." His reputation, the report said, was the result of a shortage absence of other pathologists who could go up against him.
Smith was stripped of his license, fined, and admonished by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in 2011, and has not been heard from publicly since.
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In Shepherd's case, fresh evidence suggests that Kasandra may have died of natural causes. While experts have different views on what exactly the cause was — some say it may have been a seizure — they agreed that Smith's finding that it was a homicide was wrong because the cause of death could not be determined.
"This uncertainty amongst the experts means the responsibility for death cannot be brought to Maria Shepherd," Justice David Watt ruled.
"This didn't come without a lot of quiet tears and anguish at home," Shepherd told reporters today, flanked by her four children who had accompanied her to the courthouse and sat with her inside.
Following a short hearing, in which defense lawyer James Lockyer told the court that other experts had found Smith's conclusion — that Kasandra had died from trauma as a result of a "significant blow" to the back of her head — to be seriously flawed, and the Crown also pushed for an acquittal, Watt read his decision.
"The appeal is allowed," Watt said. "The plea of guilty and conviction is set aside and an acquittal entered."
"Charles Smith was like a god. Who am I? I'm just a little person."
In early 1991, when Kasandra's health began to suddenly deteriorate, she was hospitalized for a month and released when it looked like she was getting better. But shortly after that, the toddler became ill again — vomiting, struggling to breathe, then becoming unresponsive. Her father Ashley called 911 and she was rushed to the hospital.
Kasandra was taken off life support after being in a coma for two days with swelling in her brain.
Smith, who conducted her autopsy noted a doughnut-shaped bruise deep in the underside of her scalp and told police to look for a similarly shaped object, which he believed had caused the injury, deeming the death a homicide.
Investigators came back with Shepherd's wristwatch. Smith then compared the watch with a photograph of the bruise.
"For him, it was a match," said Watt, calling the evidence "the linchpin" for the Crown's case against Shephard. He also noted that there was "a powerful inducement" for Shepherd to plead guilty. Then 21-years-old, she told police she'd pushed Kasandra once before while wearing the watch but that she didn't think the impact could cause such an injury.
Had the conviction come following a trial, the 46-year-old would've faced the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence in a facility hours away from her family. After consulting with another expert, who couldn't refute Smith's theory, Shepherd's lawyer advised her to plead guilty to manslaughter.
"Charles Smith was like a god. Who am I? I'm just a little person," Shepherd said, explaining her decision.
"We've struggled and suffered for a very long time through something we should've never had happen to us."
She was sentenced to two years in prison and three years probation, but her criminal record has meant that for the past 25 years, her life has been far from normal.
"I can't even apply at McDonalds, she said. "They ask if you have a criminal record, and when I get to that point, I just clear the screen and don't bother anymore. You hide yourself. You kind of operate and hope that people don't recognize you for a long time. And the branding of being a baby killer was just horrific."
But despite it all, Shepherd said she forgives Smith.
"I'm not sure what was going on in Mr. Smith's head," she said. "There must be something extremely troubling for somebody not to do it once, or twice — we're talking about a dozen people, at least, that he has done this to.
"I forgive Charles Smith because it's going to be less of a weight, and my family and I can carry on."
Shephard's four children sat at the front, awaiting the decision. Her son Jordan cried as his sister rubbed his back. Outside, a crowd of reporters and supporters listened as her family reflected on the loss Kasandra, the painful two decades that followed, and the events of the morning.
"We've struggled and suffered for a very long time through something we should've never had happen to us," said Jordan, standing with his sisters.
"Today is a momentous day in that the world will now know what we know," he continued. "There should be no more questions or doubts."
_Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: _@anima_tk