ProPublica’s latest installment of their excellent series on death investigation in America focuses on how child deaths are investigated and prosecuted.
We analyzed nearly two dozen cases in the United States and Canada in which people have been accused of killing children based on flawed or biased work by forensic pathologists, and then later cleared.
Some spent years in prison before courts overturned their convictions. In 2004, San Diego prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against a man who’d been imprisoned for two decades for murdering his girlfriend’s son.
Others were freed more swiftly but endured hardships nonetheless. An El Paso, Texas, jury acquitted a woman of killing her child in 2010, but after spending 22 months in the county jail, she still had to wage a legal battle to regain custody of her other children.
The questionable prosecutions identified in our investigation had common elements:
Often, authorities had little to go on other than autopsy findings. Many of the doctors who conducted post-mortem examinations failed to consult specialists in childhood injuries or ailments, or to thoroughly review medical records that could have affected their conclusions. In several cases, forensic pathologists worked so closely with authorities, they effectively became agents of law enforcement, rather than objective arbiters of scientific evidence.
Some experts in the field say worries about mistakes in child death cases are overstated. “The vast majority of forensic pathologists recognize a child abuse case when they see it, and it’s not because they want to persecute people,” said Dr. Mary Case, chief medical examiner for four Missouri counties including St. Louis County.
But others say the criminal justice system has yet to confront the full scope of the problem, and that, as a result, more innocent people may be serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. “I think it’s time to look at these cases again,” said Dr. Michael Laposata, chief pathologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, adding that this could “result in the liberation of a number of falsely accused people.”
Read the full story here.