Author: Sarah Harland-Logan

Introduction

William Mullins-Johnson was wrongly convicted of a truly horrific crime; a crime which never took place. On the evening of June 26, 1993, twenty-two-year-old Bill was babysitting his four-year-old niece, Valin.[1] Bill’s sister-in-law, Kim, had asked him to look after her three children that evening; she would soon tell the police that “the children loved staying with Billy.”[2]

Bill and Valin spent part of the evening watching TV, before Valin went to bed – she had been running a fever earlier that day. Valin gave her uncle a goodnight kiss and a hug, and told Bill that she loved him.[3] When Bill checked on her about half an hour later, Valin was sleeping. When Kim went into Valin’s room the next morning, she was confronted with any mother’s worst nightmare. She first noticed that there was vomit on Valin’s bed, and when Kim turned the little girl over, she saw that Valin was purple.[4] Bill would later recall that he had been sleeping on the couch when he heard Kim barreling down the stairs, crying and screaming. He asked her what had happened, and she screamed out the heartbreaking news that Valin was dead.[5] Bill’s brother – Valin’s father – tried to roll her over to perform CPR, but it was too late: Valin’s body was rigid with rigor mortis, and reviving her would be impossible.[6]

Bill was devastated. Over a decade later, he would describe his niece as “very smart, very mischievous, very funny and very special to me.” Bill’s mother, Valin’s grandmother, would insist that “he adored that girl and would never hurt her.”[7] Having suffered this devastating family tragedy, Valin’s family – Bill included – should have been able to grieve together and treasure her memory. However, due to a series of egregious errors made by the physicians who conducted the post-mortem examination of Valin’s body, Bill’s personal tragedy was just beginning.

Faulty Medical Evidence

After Kim discovered her daughter’s body, Valin’s remains were taken to the Sault Ste. Marie General Hospital. Over the next several hours, a team of physicians – Dr. Bhubendra Rasaiah (who conducted Valin’s autopsy), Dr. Patricia Zehr, and the now-infamous Charles Smith (see explanation below) – made findings as to how Valin had died.[8] Their conclusion was that she had been strangled to death between 8:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. on the night of June 26th – meaning that Bill, who had been alone with the children, would had to have murdered her.[9] They also found that Valin had been subjected to chronic sexual abuse.[10] In fact, Dr. Zehr – who was not a pathologist, but rather “a gynaecologist/obstetrician with expertise in child sexual abuse” – concluded that “this was one of the worst cases of child sexual abuse she had seen.”[11]

Bill was arrested at 6:30 p.m. on June 27th 1993, for the first degree murder and aggravated sexual assault of his niece.[12] Bill recalled that during his interrogation, the police officers “kept screaming at me that they had evidence that I did this and that…. With every accusation, I responded: ‘I didn’t do it.’”[13] Bill continued to maintain his innocence, from this first police interview until the present time.[14] However, only his mother, Laureena, believed him.[15] Meanwhile, Bill’s extended family closed ranks on him, since they trusted those believed to be the experts’ judgment. Bill, on the other hand, began to believe that his brother might have killed his own daughter, since he too trusted the experts, and he knew himself to be innocent.[16]

Bill’s Trial and Incarceration

At Bill’s trial, the jury heard expert testimony from the now-disgraced pathologist Charles Smith. He and other Crown expert witnesses testified that Valin had been abused and then suffocated to death, as evidenced by the bruises found on her chest, neck, and head. Smith also testified that the four-year-old had been anally raped.[17]

On September 21, 1994, Bill was convicted of first degree murder – meaning that the jury believed he killed Valin while sexually assaulting her – and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for 25 years.[18] The jury convicted Bill despite the fact that there was no physical evidence connecting him to Valin’s death.[19]

Bill was transported to Joyceville Institution, outside Kingston, Ontario. As a convicted sex offender, he received death threats from other prisoners, and was afraid that other inmates might slash his throat.[20] He was placed in solitary confinement for a four-month period for his own protection. In 1995, he was sent to Warkworth Institution, a prison north of Toronto that houses sex offenders in protective custody. At Warkworth, Bill took correspondence courses and learned about his Aboriginal heritage, while locked behind the steel door of a sparsely appointed cell.[21]

Appeals Denied

Bill appealed his conviction to the Ontario Court of Appeal, but the court dismissed the appeal on December 19, 1996.[22] One of the three judges disagreed with the decision to dismiss the appeal. In his dissenting judgment, Justice Borens stated that he would have ordered a new trial in Bill’s case.[23] He pointed out that “there was no forensic evidence” connecting Bill to Valin: “although tests were conducted, there was no evidence that any bodily substance of [Bill’s] … was on, or in … [Valin’s] body.”[24] He also noted that “Of the five experts who testified, only Dr. Smith … thought he saw evidence of recent anal penetration.”[25] This dissenting opinion – pointing out the severe limitations in the evidence used to convict Bill of Valin’s murder – is in retrospect haunting, as we will see below.

Bill then appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, but the court unanimously dismissed his appeal on May 26, 1998.[26]

A Miscarriage of Justice

Bill then turned to AIDWYC for help, and the organization took his case. In February 2003, lawyer James Lockyer wrote to the Crown Law Office on AIDWYC’s behalf, asking that the samples taken from Valin’s body be made available so that forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Knight could independently review them.[27]

The police then contacted Dr. Rasaiah (who had conducted Valin’s autopsy); his records revealed that he had sent the microscopic slides from Valin’s autopsy that AIDWYC had requested to Charles Smith, who had never returned them. Numerous people then attempted to communicate with Smith about the location of these slides, but he denied that he still had the slides and stonewalled this process for over a year, until the slides were finally located in his office and provided to Dr. Michael Pollanen, who has since become the Chief Forensic Pathologist for Ontario.[28]

Dr. Pollanen decided to conduct his own investigation into the slides. He quickly realized that Smith’s findings had been shockingly inaccurate. In fact, they were completely wrong. The injuries to Valin’s body that Smith had attributed to physical abuse were simply “the result of normal processes following death or were caused by procedures connected to the post-mortem investigation.”[29] In particular, the dilation of her anal area that Smith had testified indicated she had been sexually assaulted was actually a normal result of changes to her body after death and during the autopsy.[30]

Dr. Pollanen concluded that there was actually no evidence whatsoever that Valin had been sexually abused or that she had been murdered. Although it was impossible to tell what had caused Valin’s death, there was zero evidence that she had died from anything but natural causes.[31] Dr. Pollanen then sent the slides to Dr. Knight, who agreed that Valin’s death was natural.[32]

At last armed with new evidence that he was innocent, Bill and AIDWYC filed a s. 696.1 application for ministerial review of his conviction on September 7, 2005. He was granted bail on September 21, 2005, while the Minister considered his application. He had spent exactly 11 years in prison for a crime that never took place.[33]

On July 6, 2007, the federal Minister of Justice granted Bill’s application and sent the case back to the Ontario Court of Appeal.[34] This time, the Court took a very different view of Bill’s conviction, finding that “it is now clear that there is no evidence that Valin Johnson was assaulted or murdered, and no evidence that … [Bill] was guilty of any crime.” Further, the Court acknowledged that Bill had suffered “a terrible miscarriage of justice.”[35]

On October 15, 2007 the Court quashed Bill’s conviction and acquitted him of the terrible “crime” that never occurred but had torn his life and family apart.[36] On October 20, 2010, Chris Bentley, the Attorney General of Ontario at the time, announced that Bill would be awarded $4.25 million in compensation for his wrongful conviction. Mr. Bentley apologized to Bill and his family on behalf of the Ontario government “for the miscarriage of justice that occurred and the pain they had to endure.”[37]

Causes of Bill’s Wrongful Conviction

The principal reason for Bill’s wrongful conviction was the flawed testimony of disgraced ex-pathologist Charles Smith. In fact, AIDWYC played a crucial role in bringing about the investigation that exposed him. AIDWYC had grown suspicious of Smith’s conclusions in other cases as well; so in April 2005, AIDWYC wrote to Dr. Barry McLellan (then the Chief Coroner for Ontario) and Michael Bryant (then the Attorney General), urging a full public inquiry into Smith’s work.[38] On June 7, 2005, Dr. McLellan announced in a press release that a formal review would be conducted into Smith’s work on 45 cases involving suspicious deaths of children.[39] This inquiry, led by Justice Stephen Goudge, resulted in the publication of the Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario.[40]

This comprehensive report found that Smith had no training in forensic pathology (his own field was pediatric pathology), which led to many misdiagnoses such as his completely incorrect assessment of Valin’s injuries.[41] Moreover, Smith was a terrible expert witness who often “provided unbalanced or emotive testimony, which tended to invite inappropriate and adverse conclusions.”[42] Smith was eventually stripped of his medical license.[43]

At the Ontario Court of Appeal hearing that led to Bill’s acquittal, AIDWYC lawyer James Lockyer explained that Smith’s woefully inaccurate testimony incited an “extraordinary rush to judgment” by authorities, after which “there was no stopping the train.”[44]

Wounds that AIDWYC Cannot Heal

A few days before his release on bail, Bill told reporters that the day he was charged “ripped my soul out – and right from the first allegation it destroyed my life.”[45] On the day of his release, he explained that “the last 12 years has been nothing but hell for me – and my family.”[46] In a 2010 interview, Bill said that he might as well still be in a prison cell, because, in his words: “I largely live the way I lived when I was inside: isolated [and] … untrusting.”[47]

Although Bill has regained his freedom, he has lost a decade of his life and suffered unimaginable anguish and undeserved stigma, as his family, fellow inmates, and the public at large believed that he had committed a horrific crime. In a sense, Bill is still behind bars.


[1] CTV.ca New Staff: “New Report Says Ontario Man Wrongfully Convicted.” September 14, 2005, via http://injusticebusters.org/05/Mullins-Johnson_William.shtml.

[2] Harold Levy Staff Reporter: “Murderer Didn’t Do It, Experts Say.” September 13, 2005, via http://injusticebusters.org/05/Mullins-Johnson_William.shtml [“Murderer Didn’t Do It”].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] CityNew.ca Staff: “Mullins-Johnson Found Not Guilty After Day Of Gut-Wrenching Appeals Testimony.” October 15, 2007, http://www.citynews.ca/2007/10/15/mullins-johnson-found-not-guilty-after-day-of-gut-wrenching-appeals-testimony/.

[6] Kirk Makin, The Globe and Mail. “Formal Acquittal Not Enough for Tearful Mullins-Johnson.” October 16, 2007: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/formal-acquittal-not-enough-for-tearful-mullins-johnson/article695800/ [“Acquittal Not Enough”].

[7] “Murderer Didn’t Do It,” supra note 2.

[8] R v Mullins-Johnson, 2007 ONCA 720 at paras 2-4, 228 CCC (3d) 505 [Mullins-Johnson].

[9] Ibid at para 3.

[10] Ibid at paras 2, 11.

[11] Ibid at para 3.

[12] Ibid at para 7.

[13] “Acquittal Not Enough,” supra note 6.

[14] Mullins-Johnson, supra note 8 at para 14.

[15] Frank Dobrovnik, The Sault Star: “William Mullins-Johnson A Prisoner of the Past.” May 10, 2010, http://www.saultstar.com/2010/05/10/william-mullins-johnson-a-prisoner-of-the-past [“Prisoner of the Past”].

[16] “Acquittal Not Enough,” supra note 6.

[17] Mullins-Johnson, supra note 8 at para 15-16.

[18] Harold Levy, “A Convicted Killer’s Quest for Justice,” at http://injusticebusters.org/05/Mullins-Johnson_William.shtml; The Honourable Stephen T. Goudge, Commissioner. “Volume 2: Systematic Review,” Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario. September 30, 2008, available at http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/goudge/index.html (p 32) [“Goudge Inquiry”].

[19] Helena Katz, Justice Miscarried: Inside Wrongful Convictions in Canada, “Natural Causes: The William Mullins-Johnson Case.” Toronto: Dundurn, 2011 (p 155).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] R v Mullins-Johnson, 31 OR (3d) 660, 112 CCC (3d) 117.

[23] Ibid at para 20.

[24] Ibid at para 25.

[25] Ibid.

[26] R v Mullins-Johnson, [1998] 1 SCR 977, 124 CCC (3d) 381.

[27] Goudge Inquiry, supra note 18 at pp 28-29.

[28] Ibid at p 29.

[29] Mullins-Johnson, supra note 8 at paras 15-16.

[30] Ibid at para 15.

[31] Goudge Inquiry, supra note 18 at p 30.

[32] Ibid at p 31.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Mullins-Johnson, supra note 8 at para 7.

[35] Ibid at paras 1, 6.

[36] Ibid at para 28.

[37] CBC News: “Wrongfully Convicted Ont. Man Gets $4.25M.” October 21, 2010, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/wrongfully-convicted-ont-man-gets-4-25m-1.967978.

[38] Inquiry into Pediatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario Report (the Honorable Stephen T. Goudge, Commissioner), Volume 2 Systemic Review (2008), online: http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/goudge/report/index.html.

[39] Goudge Inquiry, supra note 18 at p 32.

[40]Available at http://www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca/inquiries/goudge/index.html

[41] Ibid at p 41.

[42] Ibid.

[43] CTV.ca News Staff, “Disgraced pathologist stripped of medical licence.” February 1, 2011, http://www.ctvnews.ca/disgraced-pathologist-stripped-of-medical-licence-1.602739.

[44] “Acquittal Not Enough,” supra note 6.

[45] “Murderer Didn’t Do It,” supra note 2.

[46] Colin Perkel, Canadian Press, “Mullins-Johnson Free After 12 Years.” September 21, 2005, via http://truthinjustice.org/mullins-johnson.htm.

[47] “Prisoner of the Past,” supra note 15.