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Shocking: How Faulty Science Lands Innocent People Behind Bars as Accused Child Murderers

Medical examiners and coroners have repeatedly mishandled cases of infant and child deaths, helping to put innocent people behind bars.

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Their findings carry enormous weight within the criminal justice system. As anyone who's watched an episode of "CSI" knows, if a forensic pathologist says it's a homicide, police will soon be hunting for the killer.

Though depicted as glamorous and high-tech on TV, the field of death investigation is plagued by chronic underfunding, a shortage of specialists, and a lack of national standards, according to a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Many of the nation's morgues are staffed by doctors who aren't board-certified in forensic pathology. To become certified, doctors need an extra year of training and must pass a day-long test. Earlier this year, an investigation by ProPublica, "Frontline" and NPR showed that more than 100 physicians without board certification were working at the country's busiest coroner and medical examiner offices.

Even for the best educated and trained doctors, performing an autopsy on a baby or young child poses particular technical challenges. Their developing bodies function differently. It's why doctors who treat living children -- pediatricians -- receive different training than those who deal with adults.

"Adults are generally tougher and harder to kill then a small child. Particularly an infant," said Dr. Jon Thogmartin, chief medical examiner for Pasco and Pinellas counties in Florida, a jurisdiction that includes St. Petersburg. "So, you're looking for very subtle signs of trauma or pressure, or small amounts of bleeding that could potentially cause a kid severe illness or death."

When toddlers and infants die, autopsies frequently play a primary role in the police investigation. Adults often kill one another in public places where witnesses might catch glimpses of the violence. They tend to use guns or knives, weapons that leave obvious and distinct wounds. When adults kill children, they are more likely to use their hands and to commit their crimes out of view of anyone else.

"Often there are only two pieces of evidence," said Justice Stephen Goudge, a Canadian judge who conducted an extensive inquiry into Ontario's forensic pathology system. "The first: who had care of the infant in the hours leading up to the death, normally a parent or caretaker. And secondly, the forensic pathology, which attempts to give an opinion on what the cause of death was." If the autopsy findings are flawed, the judge said, "then the risk of a miscarriage of justice is high."

Thogmartin said the charged emotions inevitably triggered by a child's death add another layer of complexity. Forensic pathologists, in his view, can get "caught up in the anger, the emotion, the despair." Their mindset can become prosecutorial, Thogmartin said, until every child death is a "homicide until proven otherwise." When he took on his current job as chief medical examiner in 2000, he stressed the need for neutrality to his staff.

"As a forensic pathologist, I don't testify for the state. I don't testify for the defense. I testify for the decedent," he said. "They are not able to talk, so I try to talk for them."

Thogmartin overruled the autopsy conclusions in two child death cases handled by his predecessors that he said might have been colored by bias. In one case, a man was four years into a 10-year prison term for killing his infant son. In the other, a father was facing trial on murder charges for killing his 7-month-old daughter.

When Thogmartin sifted through the autopsy files and tissue sles, he was shocked: He saw no evidence of violence. In his opinion, the children had died of natural causes.

Both men were subsequently cleared by the courts, but even the one exonerated before standing trial suffered life changing consequences, Thogmartin said. "That unfortunate gentleman had his life turned upside down. ... His life was destroyed."