A case of a wrong conviction

The Ontario Court of Appeal in Canada overturned the sentence of a man who was charged and convicted of first degree murder and had been sentenced to life in prison. The victim was a four-year-old girl who was found dead at home in her bed by her parents at 7am on June 27, 1993.
During the evening and night prior to her death, she had been cared for by her uncle, who was her baby sitter. When the body of the little girl was discovered, she was lying face down and there was visible accumulation of blood around her neck and face.

Her anus was open and appeared dilated. A team of doctors examined the body of the girl. The doctors included a pathologist, a doctor for the hospital for sick children and a gynaecologist with expertise in child abuse. After the gynaecologist had examined the body, she declared that this was one of the worst cases of child abuse she had seen!
The pathologist reported that there was evidence of acute and chronic injury to the anus. The opinions provided at trial were that the little girl had been sexually assaulted and then suffocated.
The convicted uncle of the little girl initiated a post-conviction relief process based on fresh evidence derived from a re-interpretation of the postmortem findings. These involved a reassessment of the scene, a review of the postmortem photographs, microscopic slides and expert opinions.

It was found that although the anus of the little girl was dilated, it did not have any injuries after all. No spermatozoa or DNA foreign DNA was recovered from the anus.
A forensic examination of the convicted uncle’s pyjamas, underwear and bed sheets and the clothes he wore that night all supported the assertion that the uncle did not assault or murder his niece. It was concluded that this was a case of a patulous anus, which had over the years been erroneously interpreted by doctors as reflecting sexual assault but is now recognised as a normal dilatation of the anus following death.

Furthermore some form of ‘bleeding’ may occur under the lining of the anus after death has occurred and this can easily be misinterpreted as injury. The accumulation of blood in the neck and chest were also judged to have been misinterpreted when in fact they were the drainage of blood due to the position of the little girl at the time of death.
The prosecution conceded that the medical evidence produced on review could not sustain the conclusions drawn by the original experts at the trial. The prosecution agreed with the appellate that a miscarriage of justice had occurred and the conviction was quashed by the court.
Jerry Harvard, a 33-year-old man remains on the death row in the US, for a similar offence. However, the Supreme Court of Mississippi has unanimously ruled that he can proceed with evidentiary hearing to challenge his conviction.

This case underlines the need for awareness of the shortcomings of expert evidence and interpretation of forensic findings. One of the safety measures in the criminal justice system is the disclosure of evidence before commencement of the trial by the prosecution to the accused.
A prudent defence lawyer will look up literature with respect to such forensic evidence and seek for interpretation of this evidence from another expert and therefore be prepared to appropriately cross examine the author of the report.
Doctors may present wrong or misleading postmortem reports or misleading forensic evidence in court when they perform incomplete or unsatisfactory postmortems, when they misinterpret the findings at postmortem, when they have an insufficient knowledge of forensic medicine or when the expert is biased.

Thorough research
Doctors must ensure that the expert opinion they offer in the Courts of law correspond to other facts of the case. This is why it is important to get accurate information about the circumstances of a particular death before carrying out a postmortem. However, doctors must be careful not to be misguided by this information.
The conclusions that doctors draw from a postmortem must also conform to known scientific literature and not the whims or personal theory of the doctors. The doctors must be objective and keep an open mind as to other possibilities of the case. The testimony of the expert witness must be balanced, reasonable and should concede fair alternatives under cross examination.

These errors can be avoided if there is a system of quality assurance in place. Such a system includes peer review of postmortem reports before they are given out and the use of standard guidelines.
Doctors should also document their postmortem findings in such a format that these findings can be independently reviewed.
It is for this reason that photography and histology are very important in postmortem examinations. Postmortem reports should be comprehensive and expert opinions should be explained and reasons for these opinions clearly. Pre-trial case conferencing also helps to reduce these.

Dr Sylvester Onzivua,
Consultant Forensic Pathologist.
[email protected]


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