NEWS
02/16/2012 03:04 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta Justice officials investigate files of forensic pathologist

EDMONTON - Justice officials in Alberta are investigating the work of a former forensic pathologist after mistakes were found in at least four of his autopsies.

The unnamed doctor was in Calgary for a year before leaving the job last September. He was part of 426 death investigations, including 13 homicides.

The mistakes found so far, confirmed by pathologists in the United States, did not involve criminal deaths.

But a special prosecutor will be reviewing all his homicide files and defence lawyers on the cases will be notified, Greg Lepp, assistant deputy minister with the criminal justice branch, said Thursday.

He said the priority will be on criminal cases that are currently before the courts, followed by cases that have already concluded.

"That does not mean in any way that we're satisfied that errors or mistakes were made in those criminal cases," Lepp said.

"It's just that with the questions being answered, we're obliged to disclose that to the defence. And we're also obliged to ensure that we leave no stone unturned in terms of seeing that justice is done."

Justice Minister Verlyn Olson said the mistakes have nothing to do with heavy workloads. He said new staff were added to the medical examiner offices in Calgary and Edmonton last year after the work of another forensic pathologist was questioned.

Mistakes were found in an autopsy by Dr. Michael Belenky, a former assistant medical examiner in Calgary. A subsequent review of his criminal files found there were no miscarriages of justice, said Lepp.

Dr. Anny Sauvageau, the province's chief medical examiner, said not all pathologist files are autopsies. Many are external exams, which take less time.

She has made it a priority since she was hired last year to establish a peer-review system for autopsies.

Families are now able to request autopsy reviews, she said. And beginning next month, all homicide cases will get a second look before they are handed over to police.

"The office of the medical examiner has always done its utmost to provide the RCMP with reliable information," said Alberta RCMP Assistant Commissioner Marianne Ryan. "The move to peer-reviews ensures this will continue."

An inquiry in Ontario found that mistakes made by Dr. Charles Smith, a former child pathologist, were responsible for several people being wrongfully convicted and sent to prison.

The province's top court set aside several of the convictions and the government agreed to compensate those involved. Smith was stripped of his medical licence last year.