A man who pleaded guilty to killing his baby daughter in a fit of frustration almost two decades ago should get a new trial given the involvement of disgraced pathologist Dr. Charles Smith, Ontario’s top court ruled on Wednesday.
The decision by O’Neil Blackett to take a manslaughter plea deal in 2001 was done in anticipation of Smith’s testimony that the little girl had been murdered, the Court of Appeal said.
“This is one of those cases where, despite the passage of time since the plea was entered, this court should exercise its power to set aside the guilty plea in the interests of justice,” the Appeal Court ruled.
“Fresh evidence establishes that absent Dr. Smith’s flawed opinion, the appellant would not have pleaded guilty.”
The case arose in February 1999, when Blackett was looking after his 13-month-old daughter, Tamara Thomas, who had a history of breathing and intestinal problems for which she had on an occasion needed hospital care. When her mother returned from running errands to her apartment in Toronto’s east end, she found Tamara lifeless in her playpen.
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In the month before she died, Tamara had been found with a fractured thigh while Blackett was looking after her. A responding paramedic, who described the father as an “anxious parent who showed concern,” said Tamara’s leg had been caught in the spindles of her crib.
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Police found the crib unsafe and decided the injury was accidental. Blackett co-operated with an ensuing investigation by the Children’s Aid Society, although the girl’s mother did not.
Days before she died, Tamara began throwing up and losing weight. Responders on the day of her death described Blackett as distraught and confused, and said he denied harming her.
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Smith, at the time a renowned pediatric forensic pathologist, was of the view the child had suffocated either due to strangulation or brute force applied to her body. He was certain the baby hadn’t choked to death on her vomit or otherwise by accident. The autopsy, Smith noted, had turned up fractures to both her thighs as well as to several ribs.
Police initially charged Blackett, who is now 41 years old, with second-degree murder. However, he pleaded out to a reduced manslaughter charge in August 2001 before Superior Court Justice David Watt. The guilty plea included a statement of facts in which Blackett said Tamara had suffocated while he was using force to feed her, and that he had left her to die.
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Watt jailed him for a total of 4 1/2 years — a sentence he has long served.
While his lawyer had advised him against pleading guilty to something he hadn’t done, Blackett apparently believed he had little choice.
“A number of factors came into play in the appellant’s decision to plead guilty to manslaughter,” the Appeal Court said. “Of particular significance was the impact he thought Dr. Smith’s evidence would have on the jury.”
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Concerns about Smith’s work, which ultimately led to a judicial inquiry that uncovered major flaws in his opinions, first surfaced in 2001. An independent review of Tamara’s death was generally supportive of Smith’s conclusions, court records show. However, a subsequent review in 2001 by another pathologist cast doubt on the findings.
Blackett began his appeal years later based on evidence before the public inquiry and other forensic reports that found it impossible to say why the girl died — fresh evidence accepted by the prosecution and the Appeal Court.
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“Dr. Smith’s conclusion — that asphyxia properly described the cause of death in this case — is reflected in the agreement statement of fact tendered in support of the plea,” the prosecution said. “It is now well understood that Dr. Smith’s opinion in this regard cannot be relied upon.”
It was not immediately certain whether the Crown would in fact opt to try Blackett again.
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