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When justice is blind, so is science

the guy-paul morin story

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By Donna Laframboise, Toronto Star, 30 January 1995

Donna Laframboise

While science - in the form of DNA tests - freed Guy-Paul Morin last week, it's important to remember that science was also used to wrongly convict him. A public inquiry into the Morin case should therefore take a hard look at forensic science as it's now being practiced in the province.

Here in Toronto, most forensic scientists are associated with one of two government-run facilities. The provincial morgue (a.k.a. the Toronto morgue), is on Grenville St. Although the building also houses the office of the chief coroner, autopsies actually are performed by doctors known as pathologists.

Christine Jessop's decomposed remains were examined in late 1985 by the late Dr. John Hillsdon Smith, who between 1973 and 1994 was Ontario's chief forensic pathologist. His report influenced the police investigation in that it suggested how long Jessop had been dead, how long it would have taken her assailant to murder her, and provided hints as to the state of mind of her killer.

When a second autopsy was performed on Jessop in 1990, other scientists discovered a massive skull fracture, knife marks to two ribs, damaged vertebrae and a horrific breastbone injury - all of which had been overlooked by Hillsdon Smith.

Three years later, my own research revealed that the morgue does not require its doctors to have passed an exam in this specialized field. Technically, a doctor with any kind of pathology training - in infectious diseases, for example - can get work at the morgue and end up giving "expert" testimony in extremely serious criminal trials.

I discovered that while new doctors received some amount of training at the facility, no written or practical examinations were administered. Following a year-long Freedom of Information battle, I also unearthed a 1985 OPP report regarding allegations of wrongdoing at the morgue.

This report found that internal records had been falsified by staff members and says: "There does not appear to be any legislation or guidelines setting out who is authorized to perform autopsies or the procedures to be followed." As a result, individual pathologists "posses their own interpretation with respect to the functions they perform."

The second government-run forensic facility is the Centre of Forensic Sciences on Grosvenor St. The role this lab played in the Guy-Paul Morin case is even more alarming. Aside from the supposed confession that two inmates with criminal and psychiatric histories claimed they heard Morin make, the most persuasive "evidence" against him consisted of a few hairs and fibres examined by the centre's biology department.

“Police don't recognize the limitations in hair comparisons”

Police arrested Guy-Paul Morin after being told by one of the centre's scientists that a hair found on Jessop's body was similar to Morin's hair. What she didn't say was that this means very little. In 1992 Douglas Lucas, the director of the centre told me, "The police don't recognize the limitations of hair comparisons. When we find a match, we don't pay too much attention to it. We recognize the possibility of it coming from many other individuals."

Despite knowing that crown attorneys were placing a great deal of emphasis on this hair during Morin's second trial, the centre did little to set them straight. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

The centre lost hundreds of microscope slides containing hair and fibres connected to this case. It then failed to inform anyone of this fact until the defence stumbled on it accidentally. Years later, Lucas told me his lab had made no attempt to catalog what precisely had gone missing, despite the likelihood of a future appeal. Some of the scientist's notes also have been lost.

The centre publishes evidence-collection guidelines for police. These say - in three different places - that a minimum of 50 hairs is needed from one individual if scientists are to do their comparisons properly. On the two occasions in which police took hair samples from Morin, they collected only 15 and 10 hairs. No one at the centre seems to have cared that these minimum standards weren't being met.

Then there's the matter of the handful of fibres found on Jessop's clothing - which the centre's scientists said matched a small number of fibres found in the Morin home and family car, and the crown insisted was proof Jessop had been driven to her death by Morin. Since the centre collected many of these bits of lint by vacuuming the interior of the car, the defence thought it important to know whether the vacuum bags had been sterile.

When asked the question in court, the centre's scientists didn't know. Lucas told me he didn't know. Following a Freedom of Information request, I was informed that no records exist to indicate whether the vacuum bags had been purchased from an ordinary department store or not.

“they didn't understand how instrument worked”

At Morin's second trial, the conclusions of the centre's scientists were disputed by Dr. John Reffner, a U.S. professor of microscopy and a consultant to companies which manufacture fibre examination equipment. Reffner said the technician who had produced fibre examination graphs at the centre clearly didn't understand how the instrument worked. He further expressed concern that while the tests had been run twice, the result were quite different each time.

Finally, there's the 1986 Jackson and Cook fibre study that was used to bolster the testimony of the centre's scientists. The head of the centre's biology department testified that he knew the authors of the study personally and that it supported the crown's position regarding the fibres in this case.

Among the mound of new evidence that only became public last week, are documents by and about Roger Cook, the study's co-author.

“his study was used to mislead the jury”

From 1968 to 1992, Cook ran the fibre section at the Metropolitan Police Forensic Laboratory in London, England. After reading transcripts of testimony by the centre's scientists and examining their notes, Cook says they misunderstood his study. In his opinion, it was used to mislead the jury.

He goes even further, however, by referring to the kind of fibre comparisons carried out by the centre as being "a dangerous thing to do" and "an error of judgment." He says that after discussing these comparisons with other "forensic scientists throughout the world" he considers them "an unusual sort of examination" that shouldn't have taken place at all.

Ontario government forensic scientists appear in court on a regular basis. What they say may tip the balance between a guilty verdict and an acquittal.

If we're prepared to sentence people such as Guy-Paul Morin to 25-year prison terms as a result of this kind of evidence, we need to be far more confident than we now have any right to be that our forensic scientists know what they're doing.

A thorough investigation into these government-run facilities is absolutely essential. Because in a legal context, bad science is far worse than no science.