Mom exonerated in child's death after 25 years

A woman who pleaded guilty to killing her stepdaughter 25 years ago was formally acquitted by an Ontario appeal court on Monday.

See Full Article

Maria Shepherd pleaded guilty in 1991 to manslaughter after the death of her three-year-old stepdaughter Kasandra Shepherd. She pleaded guilty based on evidence from Dr. Charles Smith – a now-disgraced pathologist.

At the time of Shepherd’s guilty plea, Smith was considered an unassailable expert. However, a later review and public inquiry of his work found that he had made numerous errors in several cases, with some leading to wrongful convictions. He was stripped of his medical licence in 2011.

After she was formally acquitted on Monday, Shepherd told reporters she was relieved to finally have a chance to live with some degree of normalcy.

"As a family we are elated, but this didn't come without 25 years of a lot of quiet tears and anguish at home," she said from the steps of the courthouse.

"We get an opportunity now to have a life together," she added, noting she will now be able to spend time with her children and forthcoming grandchildren without restrictions or supervision.

At the time of her guilty plea, Shepherd was sentenced to two years less a day in prison. She gave birth to her fourth child in prison.

Court documents show that Kasandra had been vomiting and became unresponsive in April 1991 after a period of ill health. She died two days after being admitted to hospital. Smith concluded that Kasandra had died from trauma due to at least one blow of "significant force" to her head.

Shepherd, who was 21 at the time, told police she had pushed the girl once, with her wrist and watch hitting the girl on the head. However, she didn't believe the blow could have killed her.

Shepherd told reporters on Monday that she pleaded guilty because everyone involved in the trial viewed Smith as a type of "god," whose opinion was unquestionable.

She said even her own defence lawyer at the time consulted an outside expert, who agreed with Smith's opinion. As a result, she agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter rather than risk conviction at a later trial.

However, Shepherd said she always knew she was innocent.

"I never did anything but care for Kasandra," she said, with her husband and children standing in support behind her.

Forensic experts now believe that Kasandra may have had a previous brain injury, which may have caused seizures. They also believe that she may have suddenly developed a seizure disorder that could have killed her.

Shepherd described how the guilty plea had devastating consequences for her and her family. She said she was labelled as a "baby-killer" and couldn't look for employment due to her criminal record.

"You hide yourself, you try and operate and hope that people don't recognize you," she said, describing how she coped with the ordeal.

Shepherd said despite everything she and her family have been through over the past 25 years, she has come to forgive Smith.

"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 a least a dozen people that he has done this to," she said.

"I forgive Charles Smith, because it's going to be less of a weight, and my family and I can carry on."

'The system tends to fight you all the way'

Shepherd's defence lawyer James Lockyer, with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, said he was pleased that justice was finally served. However, he warned that these types of errors can still happen because the justice system often relies on expert opinions.

"Absolutely, no question," Lockyer said on Monday after the acquittal. "There are plenty of forensic scientists out there, including pathologists, who can and will make errors.

"They can all get it wrong. Even the best can get it wrong."

He also noted that the process of overturning a wrongful conviction is often long and expensive, meaning many people do not end up seeking them.

"If there's anything to learn from this, it's that it's very difficult to establish that someone has been wrongly convicted," he said. "The system tends to fight you all the way."

With files from The Canadian Press



Advertisements

Latest Canada & World News

  • Ontario man in U.S. custody faces more child sex exploitation charges in Canada

    Canada News CTV News
    MARKHAM, Ont. -- Ontario Provincial Police say a Canadian man charged in the U.S. after allegedly flying to Atlanta in an attempt to have sex with an underage girl he met online will face further charges in Canada. Source
  • Minor clashes as Trump protesters flood downtown Phoenix

    World News CBC News
    Protesters got into minor scuffles and shouting matches with U.S. President Donald Trump supporters on Tuesday as hundreds of people lined up to get inside a Phoenix, Ariz., rally that marks his first political event since the violence in Charlottesville, Va. Source
  • Charlottesville votes to cover Confederate statues

    World News Toronto Sun
    The Charlottesville City Council voted to drape two Confederate statues in black fabric during a chaotic meeting packed with irate residents who screamed and cursed at councillors over the city’s response to a white nationalist rally. The anger at Monday night’s meeting, during which three people were arrested, forced the council to abandon its agenda and focus instead on the tragedy. Source
  • Russia says European leaders support truce in east Ukraine

    World News CTV News
    MOSCOW -- The Kremlin says the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France have spoken in support of a new attempt to secure a lasting cease-fire for eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin says in a statement that Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine and Emmanuel Macron of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke in a conference call Tuesday and welcomed a plan to try to ensure a lasting cease-fire timed to the beginning of the new school year. Source
  • Heritage status doesn't mean Glen Abbey golf course can't be built over: expert

    Canada News CTV News
    TORONTO -- An Ontario town voted this week to designate one of Canada's most famous golf courses a heritage site, but one expert says the status doesn't necessarily protect Glen Abbey's greens from being turned into a housing development. Source
  • Ottawa under tornado watch as city hit by hail, intense winds

    Canada News CTV News
    A tornado watch is in effect for Ottawa and surrounding communities as heavy rain, intense winds and hail pummeled the capital city on Tuesday. Environment Canada issued the tornado watch and thunderstorm warning for Ottawa north, Ottawa south, Kanata, Orleans, Richmond and Metcalfe. Source
  • Severe storm batters southeastern Ontario; tornado watch ends

    Canada News CTV News
    A tornado watch has ended after a major storm pounded Ottawa and parts of Quebec with heavy rain, intense winds and hail. Residents in the Niagara region are still being warned of a severe thunderstorm that can produce large hail, damaging wind gusts and “torrential downpours. Source
  • Missouri governor halts man’s execution after DNA questions

    World News Toronto Sun
    ST. LOUIS — Attorneys for a Missouri inmate scheduled for execution Tuesday warn that the state is preparing to execute a potentially innocent man. Marcellus Williams, 48, was convicted of fatally stabbing former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Lisha Gayle during a 1998 robbery at her home in the suburb of University City. Source
  • White House renews request for privacy for Trump's young son

    World News CTV News
    WASHINGTON -- The White House on Tuesday renewed its request to the news media for privacy for U.S. President Donald Trump's young son, Barron, after a conservative news and opinion website criticized the casual attire he wore home after the family's summer vacation. Source
  • Lexus-only parking reversal: Calgary airport apologizes after replacing accessible spots for luxury car owners

    Canada News Toronto Sun
    Calgary International Airport has apologized for moving parking stalls reserved for those with disabilities and setting up a Lexus marketing campaign in their place. The pavement in the parking spots close to the terminal had recently been painted to indicate they were reserved for drivers of the luxury car. Source