The Ontario Court of Appeal on February 29, 2016 quashed Maria Shepherd’s manslaughter conviction and entered an acquittal in its place. Maria, her family, friends, and members of Innocence Canada were there to support her on this momentous day that unfortunately took 25 stressful years to come to fruition.
Maria was 21-years-old, with two young children and pregnant with her third child when she was charged with causing the death of her three-and-a-half-year-old step-daughter, Kasandra, on April 24, 1991. The linchpin of Maria’s case was the flawed evidence of Dr. Charles Smith who was at the time revered as a paediatric forensic pathologist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
According to Smith, who conducted Kasandra’s autopsy, she died as a result of abuse, involving a blow or blows to the head, leaving a watch-shaped mark under her scalp.
In October 1992, Maria was under extreme pressure and concern that the Children’s Aid Society would take her children if she continued to claim innocence. She desperately wanted to keep her family together and when her lawyer, Tom Wiley consulted with a pathologist who felt Smith’s opinion was valid, Maria felt she had no choice but to plead guilty to manslaughter.
On October 22, 1992 Maria, now pregnant with her fourth child, was sentenced to two years less a day.
Maria gave birth to a little girl on March 31st, 1993, five months into her prison sentence. She was released on parole on June 21, 1993, eight months after being imprisoned and reunited with her children, Jordan, Natasha, Chelsea, Chanel and her husband Ashley, who steadfastly remained by her side.
Maria, despite her guilty plea continued to maintain her innocence and never gave up hope of one day being able to clear her name. In 2005, Kasandra’s case, amongst others, were re-examined when complaints about Smith’s work led to a review of his cases by the Ontario Coroner’s Office. The review found that Smith had made questionable findings in 12 cases that had led to criminal convictions by mishandling autopsies and misdiagnosing causes of death. In 2007 a public inquiry was led by Ontario Court of Appeal judge Stephen Goudge. The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), now Innocence Canada, contacted Maria and told her about these developments which suggested that in all probability Kasandra had died of natural causes. Maria asked Innocence Canada to investigate and if possible re-open Kasandra’s case.
Innocence Canada led by its lead counsel James Lockyer had Maria’s case reviewed by three experts: Dr. Simon Avis, a forensic neuropathologist from St. John’s Newfoundland; Dr. David Ramsay, a forensic neuropathologist from London; and Dr. Patrick Barnes, a forensic radiologist from Stanford University, California. All the experts agreed that Smith had misattributed Kasandra’s death to homicide, referring to his opinions as “unreliable in the extreme” and “pseudo-scientific.”
In May 2009, the Ontario Court of Appeal allowed Maria to appeal her conviction, but it took another seven years of waiting and hoping before her case was heard by Justices David Watt, Gladys Pardu and Peter Lauwers who found that Smith’s opinion had now been “thoroughly discredited”, which rendered Maria’s plea void.
Maria Shepherd has the distinction of being the 21st person that Innocence Canada has helped clear their name. We are humbled to have had a significant role in lifting the cloud that has for far too long hovered over the heads of her and her dedicated and loving family.
We extend our sincere congratulations to Maria who fulfilled one of her dreams by becoming a licensed paralegal on October 28, 2016.
Maria and her son Jordan, since her acquittal when their busy schedules allow, have taken the opportunity to share their story and expose the tragic consequences of a wrongful conviction.
Maria is a shining light!