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CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD: 'Bullying' Ontario chief forensic pathologist accused of interfering with cases

Dr. Jane Turner, who worked almost two years at the Hamilton Regional Forensic Pathology Unit, made the allegations in a letter to the Solicitor General

In a case that parallels a scathing judge’s decision about Ontario’s chief forensic pathologist two years ago, Dr. Michael Pollanen has been accused of interfering in the work of the province’s other forensic pathologists, pressing them to change their findings in suspicious deaths and undermining those who disagree with him.

Dr. Jane Turner, a forensic pathologist who worked for almost two years at the Hamilton Regional Forensic Pathology Unit and is now working as a consultant in St. Louis, Mo., made the allegations in an Aug. 12 letter to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.

“My complaint against Dr. Pollanen is not that I am always right and Dr. Pollanen is always wrong, but rather that his interference, bullying and insistence on compliance threaten the integrity of the system of death investigation,” Turner told Jones.

“No one is allowed to challenge his views.”

Neither Pollanen nor Jones replied to questions in a National Post email sent early Monday morning.

However, ministry spokesman Greg Flood did confirm that the Death Investigation Oversight Council (DIOC), the body responsible for overseeing coroners and pathologists, is continuing to investigate the complaints — there is another against Pollanen and Ontario Chief Coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer, filed by Hamilton forensic pathologist Elena Bulakhtina.

Flood also confirmed that Pollanen “has appeared in front of DIOC.”

Pallanen and Huyer are also members of the investigation council, though non-voting ones. Regulations preclude them from sitting on the complaints committee.

The Bulakhtina complaint alleges the busy Hamilton forensic pathology unit is being shuttered because the Hamilton pathologists were witnesses against Pollanen at Turner’s DIOC hearing.

Pollanen and Huyer adamantly denied that was why the unit is being shut when the Post first reported on the closure last month.

They said the closure was planned much earlier, but they weren’t able to reveal it publicly because the decision involved unionized employees and collective agreements.

But Turner’s complaint is much more nuanced, and echoes a 2017 decision by Ontario Superior Court Judge Anne Molloy.

Molloy was presiding at pre-trial motions in the second-degree murder trial of Joel France, accused of killing Nicholas Cruz, the two-year-old child of France’s live-in partner.

Pollanen’s anticipated evidence — that the little boy’s injuries could not have been caused by a fall — was the linchpin of the Crown’s theory that France had administered the fatal blow.

But at the pre-trial motions, Pollanen produced a supplementary report the day before he took the witness stand, and claimed to have surveyed the medical literature on children’s abdominal trauma and concluded, again, that such injuries are usually inflicted by blows to the abdomen.

But in cross-examination by France’s lawyer, Nathan Gorham, Pollanen acknowledged he hadn’t in fact reviewed the literature, much of which showed examples of children sustaining perforations of the intestines after falls from a short height.

Judge Molloy found that Pollanen had failed to properly prepare before testifying and nonetheless “expressed an opinion with certainty,” offered opinions beyond his area of expertise, and “started from a position that this was a case of abuse.”

She also found he was “evasive and disingenuous” in one discrete area.

As a result, she ruled that while prosecutors could call Pollanen to testify at trial, he wouldn’t be allowed to testify as to whether an assault was more likely than abuse, or express his opinion on whether an accidental fall had caused the child’s injuries.

In the wake of Molloy’s ruling, prosecutors and defence lawyers reached a plea bargain, and France pleaded guilty to the lesser offence of manslaughter, based on his failure to get the little boy medical treatment.

Turner’s complain centres around three cases from 2017-2018 in which she says “Dr. Pollanen interfered” with her work.

Two were pediatric cases, the third an in-custody death, she told the Post in a recent phone interview.

In the pediatric cases, she said, Pollanen “insisted” upon a finding of child abuse in one and homicide in the other, “as opposed to my own conclusions that alternative explanations were possible” — in the first that the baby died as a result of bone disease due to his prematurity and in the other that an accidental fall could explain the results.

In the in-custody case, Turner said Pollanen insisted that “my conclusion of ‘death caused by a heart attack’ be changed to ‘death caused by drug overdose.’ ”

And as Judge Molloy found Pollanen had done in the France case, Turner said in the alleged child abuse case, “He made a hasty decision as to his opinion, did not perform a fulsome review of materials before reaching a conclusion, and then once he decided what he believed was child abuse, he looked for ways to make it work that way.”

In the other baby case, Turner said Pollanen undermined her, a forensic pathologist fellow working with her, and “second-guessed the bone pathologist consult and disregarded those opinions and expertise.”

In that case, Turner said, the relevant child-welfare agency was alerted, and though Turner wrote the agency, outlining her disagreement with the cause of death, the family’s other children were removed from the home.

The current situation “is dangerous,” Turner wrote to minister Jones, “because no one is infallible.

“If pathologists see their conclusions changed irrespective of the evidence, they must be able to speak up.

“Otherwise, erroneous conclusions will be reached and lives will be ruined.”

Turner said that though she resigned from the Hamilton unit, the job “was not a good fit” for her. “I just had a strong sense my ethics did not correspond to theirs.”

The Death Investigation Oversight Council was established in 2010 as part of the response to the Goudge Inquiry into flawed death investigations led by former Hospital for Sick Children pathologist Dr. Charles Smith.

Pollanen was cited by the inquiry as an authority, yet as Judge Molloy noted in the France case, “ironically,” Pollanen displayed some of the biases he once warned against.

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