Tammy Wynne's fight to prove she isn't a killer
Published Saturday, March 20, 2010 6:49PM EDT
On the side of a gentle hill in Toronto's Pine Hills Cemetery, Tammy Wynne comes every week or two to perform a task that is every parent's nightmare. She comes here to attend the grave of her son, who died when he was a toddler.
There is no headstone to mark the place where her young son, Kenneth, was buried in 1993 -- just a small marker and the broken shards of a ceramic wolf she once placed there to guard him.
For most of the 16 years since Kenneth's death, Tammy couldn't visit his grave. She was in prison, convicted of being the person who killed him. Tammy served 13 years in custody, first in Kingston, Ont.'s Prison for Women and later in the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ont.
Now, Tammy is fighting to reverse her conviction with the help of AIDWYC -- the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted. AIDWYC won the chance to appeal Tammy's conviction because the crucial testimony against her was provided by Ontario's notorious Dr. Charles Smith -- evidence that has since been discredited.
Witness for the prosecution
For years, Dr. Smith was Ontario's pediatric homicide super-sleuth. As head of pediatric forensic pathology at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, Smith was considered the province's leading expert in determining the causes of death in children. His credentials, and the high-tech machines he used, impressed investigators, judges and juries. When he testified in court that his CAT scans and other high-tech devices revealed previously undetected signs of child abuse, he was believed.
But Smith was incompetent. In many cases, he found evidence of crime or abuse where they did not really exist.
Tammy Wynne's conviction was only one of many linked to Dr. Smith's flawed work.
- William Mullins-Johnson served twelve years in the death of his niece Valin Johnson. Smith's testimony that the four-year-old girl had been raped and strangled was crucial in convicting him. It turned out Smith had mistaken tissue damage caused during the autopsy for evidence of violence.
- Louise Reynolds spent nearly two years in jail awaiting trial, accused of killing her daughter. Later analysis revealed that that Reynolds' daughter had likely been killed by dog bites -- not stab wounds as Dr. Smith had contended.
- To escape the possibility of a life sentence, Sherry Sherrett pled guilty and was sentenced to a year for infanticide in the death of her four-month old son, Joshua. Again, the information Dr. Smith provided investigators was found to be inaccurate and far beyond his actual expertise.
In the case of Tammy's son, Kenneth, Smith found in his post-mortem report, that he believed the child had died of asphyxiation.
Police charged Tammy with second degree murder. Protesting her innocence, Tammy refused to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter. She said she had found Kenneth tangled in his sheets, struggling to breathe. She insisted she fought to free him and call 911 but by the time paramedics arrived it was too late. She insisted on going to trial.
The Crown presented a different scenario to the jury at Tammy's trial. They suggested that she was a young mother with limited parenting and coping skills, who was involved in an unstable marriage, and on the day that Tammy found Kenneth tangled in his sheets her then-husband was attending the birth of a child he'd fathered with a former girlfriend. The Crown's theory was that Tammy smothered Kenneth in a moment of frustration or jealousy. Buttressed by Dr. Smith's expert testimony that asphyxiation was the cause of death, the jury found Tammy guilty. She was sentenced to life in prison, which includes a mandatory requirement of no parole for at least 10 years.
Revisiting the evidence
It took years for Ontario's justice system to catch on to the flaws in Dr. Smith's work, but, finally, in 2007 an official inquiry led by Ontario Appeals Court Justice Stephen Goudge, convened to examine the problems caused by Dr. Smith's findings in a number of cases that had resulted in convictions now believed to be erroneous.
When they reviewed Smith's autopsy of Tammy's son, Kenneth, two independent pathologists concluded that Smith's finding that the boy had died of asphyxiation was not scientifically justified. One noted that Kenneth had suffered from a well-documented seizure disorder that could also have caused his death.
As a result, both pathologists ruled that no cause of death could have been reasonably determined in his case. One of them wrote that Smiths's conclusions were "illogical" and "completely against scientific evidence-based reasoning." Those crushing rebukes of Smith's work constituted enough new evidence that AIDWYC lawyer James Lockyer won Tammy a chance to appeal her conviction. Tammy was released from prison on bail, until the appeal can be heard. The Ontario Court of Appeal has yet to set a date.
Tammy's triple loss
In Tammy's case, the tragedy of losing one child was compounded by the loss of two other sons. Keith was born in 1994 while Tammy was awaiting trial. Eric was born two years later, after his mother had been convicted and sent to prison. Both children were apprehended at birth by Ontario's Children's Aid Society. To spare them a life in foster care and the near-certainty that they would be separated, Tammy agreed to surrender her parental rights and allow them to be adopted -- on the condition that they were kept together.
She managed to maintain contact with the boys for a couple of years, but thereafter the adoptive parents cut off all contact.
"They said they were their children and not mine anymore," said Tammy.
She was told that the two are "with a good family" – but has no idea where they are, what their names are, or if they have been told anything about her. Photos of the boys at Christmas and taking a bath, when they had already been placed with their new adoptive parents, is all that she has of them.
Tammy now lives with the hope that she will be cleared of Kenneth's death. Although the province cannot restore the sons she gave up for adoption to her, nor give her the years back in which she would have raised them as her own, she does hope that she can someday be a part of their lives.
Her dream is that they will be proud of the woman who fought for so many years to prove that she was innocent.
"I just know that I'm the only one that can tell Keith and Eric the truth about what happened. And I hope that one day they do come find me so I can tell them the truth."