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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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But by 2005, the province's chief coroner had become openly skeptical of Smith's findings and assigned five other forensic pathologists to conduct a top-to-bottom review of his work in 45 child death cases.

The results of the study were devastating: In 20 of the cases, the reviewers disagreed with Smith's autopsy reports or court testimony. Over and over, Smith cited evidence of murder where there was none, they found. (Smith would not respond to our questions.)

In a dozen cases, people were wrongly accused of killing children in Ontario based on Smith's work or testimony. Tammy Marquardt, who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering her son, spent 14 years behind bars before being exonerated.

In prison, she said, the other inmates despised her. "A baby killer would basically get the living daylights beaten out of them," she said. "A baby killer is classified as one of the lowest on the totem pole." The courts reversed her conviction earlier this year.

The Ontario chief coroner's internal review led to an official inquiry by Justice Goudge, who set out nearly 170 recommendations for remaking the province's broken death-investigation system.

Forensic pathologists who conducted child autopsies should be formally trained and board-certified, Goudge said. They should read all relevant medical records. While forensic pathologists often toil in a certain amount of isolation, Goudge recommended a more collaborative approach, saying they should consult with specialists in other medical disciplines and have other doctors review their autopsy findings.

Bias was a major concern for Goudge. In Ontario there was a mantra among forensic pathologists, he said in an interview: "Think Dirty." When doctors dealt with cases involving children who had died unexpectedly, they assumed parents or caregivers had murdered them. That outlook, the justice said, skewed the conclusions they reached in the autopsy suite. "The scientist's objective is to 'think truth' not 'think dirty,'" he said.

Many of Goudge's suggestions are being implemented in Ontario. But policy-makers in the United States have largely ignored them. There are no national standards or regulations regarding forensic pathology and practices vary widely from place to place.

Barnes, the Stanford pediatric radiologist, said it was imperative for the U.S. system to absorb the lessons from Ontario. "We need to establish the new standards at all levels, just like what is happening in Canada," he said.

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After Lopez was bused off to prison, his mother would look out her kitchen window and stare across the street at his former home, her mind turning back to the day everything changed. "It was too much to bear," Rosa remembered. So she and Ernest Sr. sold their house and moved to a place on the outskirts of Amarillo. Eddie and his wife did the same.

Lopez now lives in a cell in the Connally Unit, a maximum-security lock-up about 600 miles away in the scrubby countryside south of San Antonio. Every three or four months his parents make the 10-hour drive to the facility, a journey that costs about $1,000 between gas and hotels. "When we go, we have an enthusiasm, 'We're going to go see him,' you know, 'We're going to touch him and hold him,'" Rosa said. "And then on our way back it's really emotionally hard because we have to leave him there."

Lopez's imprisonment gnaws at Eddie, who weeps repeatedly when talking about his brother, tears streaking across his broad face. "Him being away this whole time, it's like a part of me is dead, because we were that close," Eddie said.