When children die

People really want someone to blame.  Fabulous NPR/Frontline/Pro Publica report on the incredibly shoddy science that has lead dozens to be exonerated after being falsely convicted for killing children and that makes you wonder how many innocent people are sitting in prison for this most heinous of crimes for which they are not actually guilty.   I watched the Frontline on TV, the other night, it was fantastic.  You can watch the whole thing (only 30 minutes) on-line here.  I went to the Pro Publica website because I just wanted to have the link for this blog post, but then ended up reading the whole story because it was also fabulous and went into some of the details that were lacking in the Frontline report.   And, it’s just so happened that my afternoon commute the past few days has coincided nicely with the NPR version.  Also terrific and also full of new and complementary details.

Short version: Scientists have re-thought Shaken Baby Syndrome.  Some of the persons convicted on the basis of that, are surely innocent.  The biggest revelation is just how shoddy the “science” can be in performing autopsies of the dead children.  Heck, its hardly better than hair analysis or ballistics.  Basically, forensic pathologists all too often see themselves as just a tool of the prosecutors.  They don’t have to be board certified and they routinely ignore medical histories and fail to consult with other specialists who might shed additional light on the cause of death.  After a scandal rocked Canada due to a forensic pathologist who simply lied, etc. for a bunch of convictions, they’ve put in place a system to try and get these investigations done the right way.

We know what steps are needed to fix the system–and most of them are not particularly expensive.  After it’s problems, Ottawa has made some much-needed change.  It would be great for US states to follow that lead:

Ontario has changed the rules for how to do an autopsy — and who does them. “We’ve gone beyond the era where you have self-trained, self-taught people,” Milroy says. “You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be self-trained and self-taught. Why should you have your forensic pathologist not certified?”

There are lessons that American policymakers can also learn from Canada about how to improve child autopsies. Some of those solutions require spending more money. But others are simple.

Canada — just like the U.S. — lets doctors do autopsies even without board certification. Ontario now expects forensic pathologists to get better training, or it will hire new ones from countries that demand a lot of training — like Milroy, who came from the United Kingdom.

Great Britain reviewed its child death cases in 2003 after courts released three women who had been jailed for killing their babies. It turned out that they were convicted largely on one medical expert’s flawed testimony. The review, completed in 2006, found three more British parents and caregivers who also may have been wrongly convicted.

The investigations in Canada, which turned up Charles Smith’s flawed autopsies, concluded that the problem went deeper than one rogue pathologist. So now all autopsy reports in criminal cases are done by teams and are peer reviewed.

Milroy says there’s another big change: It’s in the way courts, police and even pathologists themselves see the role of the forensic pathologist. “We think the truth,” Milroy says. “What can I say about this case — truthfully? What cannot I say about this case truthfully? One of the things that is important as a forensic pathologist is that you are not — and this is where again Smith erred — you are not part of the prosecution team.”

It’s a horrible thing when a child dies.  What an awful way to compound the horror by putting an innocent person in prison for it.  This has to stop.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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